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JAKE knew only two things about the woman he was going to meet: her name was Serena and her father had money.
Sounded kind of horsey. She probably wore jodhpurs. Mel had refused to comment on whether she was pretty or not, so she probably looked like a horse as well. He could see it so clearly: the gymkhana trophies, the chintzy bedroom. Serena wore her mousy hair in a bun and had too many teeth.
He stepped off the kerb of the busy London street and zigzagged through the gaps in the traffic. Headlights lit up his knees as he squeezed between the bumpers. A horn blared.
That was why he liked to walk. It gave him a sense of freedom in the midst of the cloying traffic. He wasn't about to take orders from anyone, especially not a pole with coloured lights on top.
Once on the pavement again, he stopped to shake the drizzle off his hair. It was more mist than rain, only visible in the orange haloes of the street lamps, but somehow he was wetter than if he'd been hit by big, splashing drops. He was going to look less than perfect when he arrived at the restaurant.
His long strides slowed as he contemplated the evening ahead. Should he be marching this briskly towards the unknown? Probably not. But he wasn't going to be late. He speeded up to his former tempo. This evening he would be polite, he would be charming, and then he would be high-tailing it out of there as fast as possible.
As long as Serena didn't have a horsey laugh to match her appearance, he could endure the temptation of the pocketsized window in the restaurant toilet. At least he hoped there was a window. Just for emergencies.
He should have checked.
In future he would do a reconnaissance of any potential venues when forced on blind dates by his meddling little sister.
Not that there was going to be a next time if he could help it.
He was still a bit hazy about how she'd talked him into going on this one. Mel had rung him at work and slipped it into the conversation while he was studying a balance sheet and saying 'mmm' and 'yup' at suitable intervals. Before he knew it, he was meeting a total stranger for drinks and dinner at Lorenzo's.
One day he would have to put his foot down with Mel. She'd been able to wind him round her little finger ever since she'd bestowed her very first smile on him. He was pretty sure she knew he hadn't been listening when she'd arranged this date. Most likely she'd planned the exact timing of her call to maximise his suggestibility.
He cut through a little park in the centre of the square rather than keeping to the busy street. It was a refreshing change from the unrelenting grey of the city. Not that there was much green within the park's wrought-iron railings at this time of year.
At least it smelled like November—acorns and rotting leaves. He took a deep breath and savoured the warm, earthy aroma. That was when he became aware of the tramp, more noticeable by his body odour than his appearance. He might easily have taken him for a forgotten coat on the bench otherwise.
The old man was oblivious to the rain. Saliva trailed from his open mouth down his chin, and the wind rolled an empty beer can to and fro beneath the bench. Jake removed the copy of the Financial Times from under his arm and spread a few pages over the man's shoulders and torso, making sure he didn't accidentally touch his coat. Hopefully, by the time the pages were wet through, the old guy would be sober enough to move himself somewhere drier.
He hurried through the park gate and re-entered the rush hour. The restaurant was only a few minutes away now. He didn't go in for that kind of place much. Lorenzo's was an odd choice for horsey old Serena.
According to the brief review he'd read on the internet, the restaurant was a small, family-run affair—nothing special in his book. He preferred places that were obviously exclusive now he could afford them. Give him women with diamonds, men with fat wallets and waiters that bowed any day.
However, the food was supposed to be tasty, and the critic had raved about a cannelloni dish. Not that it would make any difference to Serena. She was probably going to push a couple of lettuce leaves drenched in balsamic vinegar round her plate and complain about how everything went to her rather expansive hips.
The escape window was sounding more tempting with every step. Perhaps he should pop round the back and check the exact dimensions before he went inside?
He was so lost in thought that he didn't see the blocked drain. He didn't see the deep puddle that had collected over the top of it. He also didn't see the sports car driving up behind him.
He did, however, see the great tidal wave as car met puddle. He watched, helpless, as in slow motion tendrils of spray reared up and soaked him from head to foot.
She saw the wall of water in her rear-view mirror and gasped.
She'd been so busy daydreaming about the evening ahead she'd forgotten to manoeuvre round the small pond that always appeared on this corner in bad weather. Without thinking whether it was a good idea or not, she pulled the car to a halt, got out, and ran straight up to the sodden figure on the pavement. He didn't look as if he'd moved at all. He was just staring down at his dripping suit with his arms aloft.
"Oh, my goodness! I'm so sorry—"
He lifted his head and glared at her. "Are you okay?"
One eyebrow shot up. At least she thought it did. It was hard to tell under the dark hair plastered onto his forehead.
"You're soaked! Let me give you a lift to wherever you were going. It's the least I can do."
She'd been talking to him for a good fifteen seconds, but suddenly she had the feeling he was only just taking a good look at her. He was staring. Hard. She looked down at her suede boots and ankle-length skirt. Sure, she was getting a little soggy as she stood here in the rain, but it wasn't as if she'd come out with her skirt tucked into the back of her knickers. At least she didn't think she had.
When she looked back up he was smiling. And not just the polite tilt of the mouth you gave waitresses when they brought you a drink. This was a real one.
A shiver skittered up her spine. That was a great smile. She looked a little closer at the face it was attached to.
This was one cute guy she'd drenched. "You were saying...?"
She shook herself. "Yes. It's just—I...I mean it's the least I can do. Drop you off somewhere, that is."
"That's probably a good idea. I'm not sure I'm in any fit state to go out to dinner like this."
Her hands flew to her mouth. "I feel just awful... Well, that settles it, then. I've ruined your evening. I'm dropping you off somewhere dry and warm. No arguments."
He looked her up and down, a crinkle at the corners of his eyes. "No arguments from me. Shall we?" He motioned towards the car. "Nice wheels."
The drizzle was making a more concerted effort at proper rain, and a drop splashed on her forehead. Without talking further, they both ran to the low-slung metallic blue sports car and climbed inside.
She watched him shake his head and run his fingers through thick dark hair as he sat in the passenger seat. He looked even better with it slicked back. She could see his face properly. How did eyes that cool blue manage to smoulder? And look at that firm jaw. He looked like a man in control of his destiny. She liked that.
"The car's not mine, actually."
The smile was back. "What did you do? Steal it?" 'No, of course not. Mine's being repaired. I borrowed this from my...a friend."
She wasn't about to tell him she was riding round in her father's car. It had mid-life crisis stamped all over it. Not that her father's crazy behaviour had started in his fifties. He'd got a head start in his teenage years, and had never stopped long enough to mature.
She didn't like admitting to her parentage when she met a man who caught her eye. She'd learnt the hard way to keep dear old dad out of the picture until it was safe to drop the bombshell—and even then she was never one hundred per cent sure if she was the main attraction.
The smouldering eyes were looking at her intently. "A friend?"
Drat! He'd spotted the little detour in her explanation. He sat back in the seat and smiled, a wistful expression on his face. "That's too bad. Tell him I think he's got great taste in cars...and women."
She fumbled with the keys in the ignition.
Come on, girl! Think of something sparkling and witty to say! Tell him he's got the wrong end of the stick.
"So, where can I drop you off?"
Great. Really smooth. Well done. "Great Portman Street. Do you know it?" 'I know someone who lives down that way." She indicated and pulled away. "It's not that far from here, is it?"
"No, but in this traffic it could take a good twenty minutes."
"I know. Sometimes I think it would be quicker if I walked." 'My opinion exactly." He pinched at his trouser leg and inspected it. "Although I can't vouch for it being the drier option."
She sighed and started to speak, but he warded the words off with a raised hand.
"Please, don't apologise again. You did me a big favour, in fact. I wasn't looking forward to my evening, and you've given me the perfect excuse to bow out."
"Really?" 'Yes, really. I was destined for a date from hell with a girl that looks like a horse—and I'm not sure whether it's the front end or the back end she most resembles!"
Her laugh was loud and unexpected. "Well, consider me your knight in shining armour, then," she added, giggles bubbling under the surface.
He laughed along with her. "My eternal gratefulness, kind lady. In fact, I should thank you in some way. How about dinner?"
Since they were sitting at yet another red light, she shot a look across at him. "Have you forgotten why you're in my car in the first place? You're dripping wet!"
"It wouldn't take me long to get dry and changed. We could nip out somewhere local. We'd be in a public place. You'd be perfectly safe."
"How do I know that? We've only just met. I don't even know your name."
"It's Jake." 'Well, Jake, I still don't know you from Adam—except that your name's not Adam, that is." Oh, God, she was rambling!
"Then why did you let me in your—I mean your friend's car, then? I could be anyone. I could be an axe-wielding maniac, for all you know."
She went cold. He was right. She'd been so busy feeling bad for him she hadn't even considered basic personal safety. Her voice was braver than she felt when she answered.
"Don't be daft! I rescued you, remember? You're a Jake-in-distress. You can't possibly be an axe-wielding maniac!" Could he?
Now it was his turn to laugh. Her shoulders untensed, but she stayed quiet and concentrated on the traffic. Quicker than expected, they drew up in Great Portman Street.
"Which one?" She leaned forward and peered down the road. One side was almost entirely occupied by a red brick block of Victorian apartments.
"Right here. Top floor." 'Very posh."
She kept her eyes on the road as the car came to a halt. Even without the tell-tale reflection in the windscreen, she'd have sensed he'd turned to face her. Strange, she'd always thought that being able to feel someone's eyes boring into you was a load of poppycock.
"Come inside and have the grand tour." 'You're very forward, aren't you?" 'I know what I want, and I don't stop until I get it." The implication of that sentence made her cheeks burn. She was very proud of the wobble-free voice that came out of her mouth.
"Sorry, Jake-in-distress, I have a prior commitment. Maybe another time."
"Couldn't you stand him up?"
A reply like that would normally have had her spitting, but he said it with such lazy charm she found herself laughing.
But she wanted to. Miraculously, the prospect of an evening with Charles Jacobs seemed even greyer.
"Too bad." The tone of his voice said he respected her decision more than he cared to admit. "At least give me your number."
"Give my number? To an axe-wielding maniac? You must be mad!"
She smiled at him.
He smiled back.
Boy, those smiles got more brilliant with every outing. If she didn't get out of here quick, she was going to change her mind about dinner. Then Cassie would kill her for standing up the 'suitable' man she'd found for her, and that would never do. She was looking forward to the prospect of another time with Jake too much.
He reached into his pocket, fished out a business card and scribbled something on the back with a fountain pen.
"Have it your way. Here's my number, then."
She took it from him. Even the little rectangle of card was soggy. She'd done a really good job with that puddle.