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Leaning against the wall of the players' tunnel at Twickenham when the final whistle went was a bit like being trapped inside the body of a giant beast in pain. Tamsin hadn't been able to face watching the game, but she knew from the great, roaring groan that shook the ground beneath her feet and vibrated through her whole body that England had just fallen.
St George might have slain the dragon, but he'd certainly met his match in the mighty Barbarians.
Not that Tamsin was bothered about that. The team could have lost to a bunch of squealing six-year-old girls for all she cared, as long as they looked good while they were doing it.
She let out a shaky breath, pushing herself up and away from the wall, and discovering that her legs felt almost too weak to hold her up. This was the moment when she had to find out whether all the work of the past few monthsand the frantic damage-limitation panic of the last eighteen hourshad paid off.
Like a sleepwalker she moved hesitantly to the mouth of the tunnel and looked out into the stadium, which stretched around her like some vast gladiatorial arena. Heads bent against the thin drizzle, shoulders stooped in defeat, the England team was making its way back towards the dressing room. Tamsin looked anxiously from one player to the next and, oblivious to the dejection and bewilderment on their exhausted faces, felt nothing but relief.
The players might not have performed brilliantly, but as far as she could see their shirts had, and to Tamsindesigner of the new and much-publicised England stripthat was all that mattered. She had already been on the receiving end of numerous barbed comments about what a coincidenceit was that such a prestigious commission had been landed by the daughter of the new RFU chairman, so any whisper of failure on her part would be professional suicide.
Wearily, she dragged a hand through her short platinum-blonde hair and rubbed her tired eyes. That was why it was kind of important that news of last night's little crisis with the pink shirts didn't get out.
At the entrance to the tunnel, the bitter east wind that had made kicking so difficult for the players all afternoon almost knocked her over, slicing straight through her long ex-army greatcoat to the flimsy cocktail dress she wore beneath it. She'd left last night's charity fashion-gala early and gone straight to the factory, and hadn't had time to go home and change. Ten hours, numerous therapeutic phone-rants to Serena and a lot of very black coffee later, they'd had just enough newly printed shirts for the squad, but she'd spent the whole match praying there would be no substitutions. Only now did she feel she could breathe more easily.
The feeling lasted all of ten seconds.
Then she felt her mouth open in wordless horror. Looking up at the huge screen at the top of the south stand, the air was squeezed from her lungs and replaced with something that felt like napalm.
It was him.
So that was why the England squad had lost.
Alejandro D'Arienzo was back. And this time he was playing for the opposition. Tamsin's heart seemed to have jumped out of her ribcage and lodged somewhere in her throat. How often in the last six years since that wonderful, devastating night at Harcourt had she thought she'd seen Alejandro D'Arienzo? Even though in her head she knew that he'd gone back to Argentina, how many times had she found herself turning round to look again at a tall, dark-haired man on a London street? Or felt her pulse start to race as she caught a glimpse of a sculpted profile through the tinted windows of a sportscar, only to experience a sickening thud of disappointment and simultaneous relief when she'd seen that it was some less charismatic stranger?
Now, staring up at the vast screen, she knew there was no such respite, and no mistaking that powerfully elegant body, the broad, muscular shoulders beneath the black-and-white Barbarians' shirt, and the arrogant tilt of that dark, dark head.
The crowd broke out in spontaneous applause as the TV cameras closed in on him, and the image of his beautiful, unsmiling face filled the screen, above the words Man of the Match. He was still wearing a gum shield which accentuated the sensual fullness of his contemptuous mouthbloodied from the game and the hollows beneath his high cheekbones. A red bandana held back his damp black hair, and for a second his restless, gold-flecked eyes glanced into the camera.
It felt like he was looking straight at her.
She wanted to take her eyes from the screen, but some in-built masochistic streak prevented her, and she was left staring helplessly up at him. Six years dissolved away and she was eighteen again, incandescent with fear and excitement as his eyes had met hers and he had walked across the hall at Harcourt towards her
The England players had lined up on either side of the tunnel and were clapping the Barbarians in, but suddenly Ben Saunders, a young England player who'd been playing in the number-ten position for the first time, broke away and began to walk back across the field. Numbly Tamsin watched as he pulled his shirt over his head and held it out to Alejandro in a gesture of respect.
For a second the proud Argentinean didn't move. A tense hush seemed to fall over the stadium as the crowd watched. It was as if they were holding their breath, waiting to see whether Alejandro D'Arienzo, former England golden-boy, would accept the shirt he had played in with such glorious finesse before turning his back on the team so suddenly all those years ago.
The cameras zoomed in, but the sinister stillness of his face gave nothing away.
And then a huge roar of delight and excitement went up as Alejandro took hold of the hem of his own shirt and brought it slowly upwards over his head. Every hollow, every perfectly defined muscle beneath the bronze, sweat-sheened skin of his taut stomach filled the huge screens at both ends of the ground. And then, as he pulled the Barbarians shirt right off, the crowd screamed and whistled as they saw the tattoo of the sunthe symbol on the Argentine flagright over his heart.
Vaguely aware that her chest hurt with the effort of breathing, and her fists were clenched so tightly that the fingernails were digging into her palms, Tamsin turned away with a snort of disgust.
Sure, Alejandro D'Arienzo was gorgeous. That was indisputable. But so was the fact that he was the coldest, most arrogant bastard who had ever breathed. It was just that most people hadn't been unlucky enough to see that side of him.
She had. And she still bore the scars. So why was she turning round again, and staring like some moon-struck adolescent as he walked back across the pitch, pulling on the white shirt? The crowd were on their feet, turning the stands into a rippling sea of red and white as they waved their flags joyously at seeing their unforgotten hero back in an England shirt.
And suddenly it hit her; the implication of what she had just witnessed finally penetrated her dazed brain.
An England shirt.
Alejandro D'Arienzo in an England shirt.
A precious, produced-at-the-last-minute, paid-for-in-blood-sweat-and-tears England shirt One of the ones she absolutely couldn't afford to lose.
With a horrified gasp, Tamsin leapt forward, her four-inch heels sinking into the mud as she desperately tried to push her way through the crush of journalists, coaches, physios and groupies to reach the mouth of the tunnel before he did.
'Please, I have to '
It was as if she was invisible. There were too many people, and the noise from the ecstatic crowd was too great. The moment he stepped from the pitch, journalists closed around Alejandro like iron filings around a magnet, and Tamsin was forced backwards by an impenetrable wall of bodies. Her heart was hammering, her body suddenly pulsing with heat beneath her heavy coat, and all thoughts but one had been driven from her shocked brain.
The shirt. She had to get the shirt back, or else
With a whimper of horror, she tried again, taking advantage of her relative slightness to duck beneath the arm of a muscular ground official in a fluorescent jacket. Someone behind grabbed her coat and tried to pull her back, but panic gave her strength, and with a desperate lunge Tamsin broke free.
The England number two in front of her turned round and, recognising her, moved aside to let her through. At the same moment Alejandro finished talking to a journalist and stepped forwards.
There was hardly time to register what was happening, much less to stop it. Already unsteady on last night's killer heels, Tamsin felt herself hurtling forwards into open space, where she'd expected to encounter a solid and immovable row of muscular bodies, but just as she was falling strong arms seized her and she was lifted off her feet.
'Tamsin! Steady, darlin'.' It was Matt Fitzpatrick, the England number five. He grinned at her good-naturedly, revealing a missing front tooth. 'Don't tell mewhen you saw my glorious try in the first half you finally realised you couldn't live without me?'
She shook her head. 'I'm I need ' Her voice came out as a breathless croak, and she looked wildly around, just in time to see Alejandro disappearing into the tunnel. 'Him,' she said in a hoarse whisper.
Matt shrugged his shoulders and gave a theatrical sigh of regret. 'I see. Can't argue with that, I suppose.' And with that he hoisted her into his muscular arms and pushed easily through the crowd before she could protest. 'D'Arienzo!'
Horror flooded her and she let out a squeal, which bounced off the walls of the tunnel. 'Matt, no!' she shrieked, wriggling frantically in his giant's arms, aware that her coat had fallen off her shoulders and the skirt of her tight black-satin cocktail dress was riding up to mid-thigh, showing the lacy tops of her stockings. But it was too late. As if in slow motion, she watched Alejandro stop.
Look at her.
And then look away, without the slightest flicker of interest or recognition.
He was talking to Matt, his eyebrows raised slightly.
'Someone wants you,' grinned Matt, setting her down on her feet. Tamsin ducked her head. Her blood felt like it had been diluted with five parts of vodka as misery churned inside her, mixing uneasily with wild relief. He didn't recognise her. Of course he didn'ther hair had been darker then, and longer. She'd been younger.
And she'd meant absolutely nothing to him.
It was fine. It was good. The humiliation of facing him again if he'd remembered that night would have been terminally appalling. Some in-built instinct for self-preservation told her not to look up, not to meet the eyes of the man who had blown her world to smithereens and walked away without a scratch, to keep her head down.
Oh, God. Her self-preservation instinct hadn't reckoned on the effect of looking at the length of his bare, muscular thighs.
'Really?' he said in a quiet, steel-edged voice. 'And what could Lady Tamsin Calthorpe possibly want with me?'
Adrenalin scorched through her like wildfire, and she felt her head jerk backwards. Towering above her, he was smiling slightly, but the expression in his eyes was as cold and bleak as the North Sea.
She raised her chin and forced herself to meet his gaze. So he did remember. And he had the nerve to look at her as if she was the one who had done something wrong. Like what, for examplenot being attractive enough? Pressing her lips together, she pushed back the questions she had asked herself a million times since that awful night at Harcourt and simply said, 'Not you. The shirt. Could you take it off, please?'
Looking up into his face was like torment. She should have been used to itshe'd seen it in her dreams often enough in the last six yearsbut even the most vivid of them hadn't done justice to the brutal beauty of him as he stood only a foot away. Bruised and bloodied, he was every inch the conquering Barbarian.
'Oh, dear,' he drawled. 'What's it beenfive years? And clearly nothing's changed.'
Oh, Lord; his voice. The melodic Spanish lilt that he'd all but lost growing up in England was stronger again now. Unfortunately.
Tamsin swallowed. 'Six,' she snapped, and instantly wanted to bite out her tongue for giving him the satisfaction of knowing that she cared enough to remember. 'Anyway, I don't know what you mean. From where I'm standing, plenty has changed.'
Like I'm not naïve enough any more to think that the face of an angel and the body of a living god make a shallow, callous bastard into a hero. She didn't say the words, but just thinking them, and remembering what he'd done, made the strength seep back into her trembling body.
'Really?' He nodded slowly, reaching out a strong, tanned hand and smoothing it over the wing of pale-gold hair that fell over one eye. 'Well, there's this, of course, but I'm not talking about superficial things. It's what's underneath that I'm more interested in.' Guilty, humiliating heat flared in the pit of her stomach as his gaze flickered over her, taking in the black-satin cocktail dress beneath the huge overcoat, and the muddied skyscraper shoes that clearly said she hadn't been home last night.
'I'm sure that line about taking the shirt off usually enjoys a very high success rate, especially since your daddy is now so high up in the RFU, but that cuts absolutely no ice with me these days. I'm out of all that' He broke off, and laughed. 'Though, of course, I don't have to tell you that, do I?'
She would not melt. She would not succumb to his voice or his touch, or his questions, or anything. Looking over his right shoulder at the red cross of St George painted on the wall of the tunnel, she affected a tone of deep boredom.
'Whatever. I just want the shirt back, please.'
Wordlessly, as if he were weighing up what to do next, Alejandro took a step towards her, closing the gap between them. The other players were filing past them and the tunnel echoed with their shouts and the clatter of their studs on the floor, but the noise seemed to be coming from miles away. Tamsin felt her flimsy façade slipping. The physical reality of his closeness was acting on her senses like a drug, giving her a painfully heightened awareness of his broad, sculpted chest beneath the tightly fitting shirt, the scent of damp grass and mud that clung to him, and its undertone of raw masculinity.