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Diego leaned against the paddock fence, his dark eyes narrowed against the glare of the early evening sun as he watched the horse and rider soar over the triple jump with impressive ease. The six foot wall was next. The horse was gathering pace and the rider stretched forwards along its neck in preparation for the jump.
The display of riding skill was fascinating to watch. Unwittingly, Diego held his breath, waiting for the horse's hooves to leave the ground. But at that moment a motorbike emerged from the woods, the high-pitched scream of its engine shattering the quiet air. The bike braked on the track which ran alongside the paddock with a squeal of tyres. The horse was clearly scared by the noise, and Diego knew instantly that it would refuse the jump. But there was nothing he could do, and he watched helplessly as the rider was thrown out of the saddle, sailed over the horse's head, and landed with a sickening thud on the sun-baked earth.
Rachel was winded by the force of the impact with the ground and she struggled to draw oxygen into her lungs. Her head was spinning and sensation was returning to her body, bringing with it various points of pain on her arms, shoulders, hips She was going to have some spectacular bruises, she thought ruefully. It seemed easier to keep her eyes closed and sink into the welcome blackness where pain was obliterated, but she could hear a voice and she forced her lashes up and stared dazedly at the man looming over her.
'Don't try to move. Lie still while I check to see if you've broken any bones. DiosYou are lucky you are still alive,' the voice said roughly. 'You flew through the air like a rag doll.'
Rachel wasvaguely aware of hands running over her body, working up from her legs to her hips and then skimming her ribcage and, despite the lightness of the man's touch, she winced when he found the tender area on her lower rib. Still stunned by the fall, her lashes drifted down again.
'Hey, don't pass out. I'm going to call an ambulance.'
'I don't need an ambulance,' she muttered fiercely, forcing her eyes open again. The blackness was disappearing and above her she could see the blue sky dotted with wisps of cotton wool clouds. But then the stranger leaned over her, his face so close to hers that she could feel his warm breath graze her cheek, and for a moment she wondered if she was concussedor hallucinating.
She recognised him instantly. Diego Ortegainternational polo champion, multimillionaire and playboy who, according to the press, was as successful in his pursuit of beautiful women as he was of polo titles. Rachel had no interest in gossip columns, but since she was twelve years old she had devoured every riding magazine she could lay her hands on and there was no doubt that the Argentinian was a legend in his chosen sport.
She supposed she should not be surprised by his sudden appearance when, for the past few weeks, the main topic of conversation among the other stable-hands had been his impending visit to Hardwick Hall. But seeing him in the flesh was still a shock, and the realisation that he had been watching her take Piran over the jumps was disconcerting.
He had already extracted his mobile phone from his jeans. Rachel forced herself to sit up, biting down on her lip to stop herself from crying out as her battered body protested.
'I told you to lie still.' Diego Ortega's heavily accented voice was terse with a mixture of concern and impatience.
She instinctively rebelled against his authoritative tone. 'And I told you I don't need an ambulance,' she replied firmly as she curled her legs and managed by sheer determination to get onto her knees.
'Are you always so disobedient?' Diego made no effort to disguise his irritation and muttered something in his native tongue, in a tone that made Rachel glad that she could not understand Spanish. Once she was on her feet she would feel better, she told herself. She certainly didn't have a couple of hours to waste sitting in the waiting room at the local hospital. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to move, and then gave a yelp of surprise when strong, tanned hands settled around her waist and she was lifted into the air.
She could not have been held against Diego Ortega's muscular chest for more than a second, but the feel of his powerful arms around her and the tantalising waft of his cologne that assailed her senses made her head swim. Her heart was beating too fast, and it was no good trying to kid herself that its accelerated speed was a result of the fall. Up close, he was awesome. Her eyes strayed to his broad chest where his casual cream shirt was open at the throat, revealing dark hairs that she noticed also covered his forearms. Slowly she lifted her head and studied his square jaw, the sharply chiselled cheekbones and wide mouth with its perfectly curved upper lip.
What would it be like to be kissed by that mouth? The thought hurtled uninvited into her mind and the blood that had drained from her cheeks due to the shock of the fall now flooded back, scalding her skin. Her gaze skittered over his face and clashed with amber eyes that at this moment were glinting warningly beneath heavy black brows.
His eyes had the golden hue of sherry, Rachel noted distractedly, desperately trying to hide the fact that her legs were wobbling when he set her on her feet. She was bound to feel peculiar after hurtling over Piran's head and meeting the ground at speed. The shaky feeling had nothing to do with the man who was looming over her, she told herself as her eyes strayed to his gleaming mahogany-coloured hair which fell to his shoulders.
His rugged good-looks were entirely masculine, and with his olive-gold skin he reminded her of a picture she'd once seen of a Sioux chiefdark, dangerous and undeniably the sexiest man she had ever laid eyes on.
He was still gripping her arms, as if he feared she would topple over if he let her go. He was too close, too big and way too overwhelming, and she needed to put some space between them.
'Thanks,' she murmured as she stepped back from him.
For a moment it seemed as though he would not release her, but then he took his hands from her arms, his eyes narrowing when she swayed unsteadily.
'You need to see a medic,' he said tersely. 'Even though you're wearing a hard hat, you could be suffering from concussion.'
'I'm fine, honestly,' Rachel assured him quickly, forcing a smile and trying to ignore the feeling that she'd been run over by a steamroller. 'I've had far worse falls than that.'
'I'm not surprised,' Diego growled. 'The horse is too big for you.' His mouth compressed as he relived those gut-churning seconds when the horse had refused the jump and its rider had been flung through the air, to land in a crumpled heap on the hard ground.
He turned his head and cast an expert eye over the black stallion which had first captured his attention when he had strolled down to the practice paddock. His interest in the rider had come afterwards, when the braid of golden hair hanging beneath the riding hat had told him that the boyishly slim figure astride the horse was in fact most definitely female.
The horse was easily seventeen hands, Diego estimated. It seemed calm now that the noise of the motorbike had faded but it was clearly a nervy creature and its highly strung nature, teamed with its physical size and strength, would make it a difficult animal for a man to control, let alone the slender woman standing before him.
She was startlingly beautiful, he acknowledged, feeling a tug of interest as he studied her small heart-shaped face. Her skin was bare of make-up and porcelain smooth, her cheeks flushed like rosy apples from her exertions over the jumps. She was a true English rose, and he was captivated by her cornflower-blue eyes, which were regarding him steadily from beneath the brim of her riding hat.
Diego frowned, astonished by the sudden realisation that he was staring at her. He was used to women staring at him with varying degrees of subtlety and frequently a blatant invitation in their glances, which he responded to when he felt like it. Never had he been so fixated by a woman that he could not take his eyes off her. But this woman was simply exquisiteand so fragile looking that he was amazed she had not broken every bone in her body in the fall.
Riding the big stallion was plain folly, he brooded. 'I'm amazed your father allows you to ride such a powerful animal.'
'My father?' Nonplussed, Rachel stared at him. Neither her real father nor her mother's two subsequent husbands, who she had insisted that Rachel call 'Dad', had ever been sufficiently interested in her to care what sort of animal she rode. But Diego Ortega knew nothing of her complicated family, or the fact that her mother was a serial bride, and she frowned as she focused on the word 'allow'.
'Neither my father nor anyone else "allows" me to do anything,' she said sharply. 'I'm an adult, and I make my own decisions. And I am more than capable of handling Piran.'
'He's too strong for you, and you're a fool to think you could control him if he decided to bolt,' Diego replied coolly.
'You plainly couldn't control him when he refused the jump although, to be fair, that was not entirely your fault. Who the hell was that on the motorbike? I can't believe Earl Hardwick is happy for a yob to tear around the estate like a lunatic.'
'Unfortunately, the Earl allows his son to do whatever he likes,' Rachel said tersely, still incensed by Diego's remarks that she could not control Piran. 'The yob you're referring to was Jasper Hardwick, and I couldn't agree more with your description of him. He spends much of his time carving up the fields on his wretched bike. He shot out of the woods without warning, and it was no wonder Piran was startled. I'd challenge any rider to have been able to handle him in that situation.'
'Perhaps so,' Diego admitted with a shrug. 'You ride well,' he acknowledged grudgingly. When he had first arrived at the paddock he'd witnessed the empathy between the girl and the horsethat instinctive understanding that could not be taught or bought but was so vital in whichever competitive arena you were in. The girl was fearless in the saddle. There had been absolutely no hesitation when she had approached the six-foot jump and, although Diego had given up showjumping in favour of polo in his late teens, he knew enough about the sport to recognise her undoubted talent.
He walked over to the stallion, now standing patiently by the fence, and took hold of his reins. 'How old is he?' he queried, running his hand over the animal's flank. 'SixI've been jumping him for two years.' 'He's a fine animal. What did you say you call him?' 'Piran. He comes from a stud in Cornwall, and his name means "dark"rather appropriate for his colouring,' Rachel said softly, running her fingers through Piran's jet-black mane at the same time as Diego reached out to stroke the horse. His hand brushed against hers and she caught her breath at the brief touch of his warm skin, and then blushed furiously at the sudden gleam in his eyes that told her he had noticed her reaction to him.
His voice was so gravelly that it seemed to rumble from deep in his massive chest as he spoke again. 'So the horse is Piran and his rider is ?'
'Rachel Summers,' she answered briskly. She was head groom at Hardwick Polo Club, and it was likely that she would be in charge of Diego's horses at the upcoming polo match, where he would be the star guest. She wanted him to think she was a professional and experienced stable-hand, not a simpering idiot. She unfastened the strap under her chin and removed her riding hat. 'And you are Diego Ortega,' she said politely. 'Everyone here at Hardwick is excited about your visit, Mr Ortega.'
Dark eyebrows winged upwards and Rachel cringed. Why hadn't she said everyone has been looking forward to your visit or talking about your visitinstead of using the word 'excited'? She sounded like a naïve teenager and Diego must have thought so too because he gave her an amused smile.
'In the same way that the meaning of Piran suits your horse's colouring, I see that your name matches the shade of your hair. It is the colour of ripened wheat in mid-summer, Miss Summers,' he murmured, his eyes drawn to the wisps of gold curls that framed her face and the long braid that had slipped forwards over one shoulder. She was tinyprobably not more than a couple of inches over five feet talland when he had lifted her in his arms she had weighed next to nothing. Remarkably, she seemed relatively unscathed by her fall, although he could tell she was in pain around her ribs. But, despite her delicate appearance, she was as feisty and spirited as one of the prize colts from his stud at the Estancia Elvira, back home in Argentina.
'You look as though you are barely out of high school,' he drawled, his mouth twitching when she glared at him. 'How old are you?' he asked her.
'Twenty-two,' Rachel snapped, drawing herself up and wishing heartily that she was six inches taller. She knew she looked younger than her age and, as she rarely bothered to spend more time on her appearance than it took to wash her face and braid her hair, she accepted that it was her own fault Diego Ortega had probably mistaken her for a teenager. She did not care about his opinion of her looks, she told herself irritably, but she was proud of her riding skills and she was incensed that he had questioned her ability to control Piran.
She was breathing hard, her chest lifting and falling erratically, and she felt a jolt of shock when Diego's dark eyes trailed slowly over her body and focused deliberately on her breasts. Rachel swallowed and reminded herself that there was nothing much beneath her shirt to excite him. Riding was more than just her passionsince she was a teenager it had been an obsession that exceeded any vague interest in her appearance, and it had never bothered her that she had failed to develop a big bust. Now, for the first time in her life, she wished she looked more feminine and possessed curves rather than boyishly slender hips and a couple of minuscule bumps that did not require the support of a bra.