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'You must be wondering what sort of girl ends up for auction on the internet,' said Emily, picking up her glass of champagne and taking a quick sip. If she'd known such a course of action would lead to being swept off to the south of France by a gorgeous man in his private jet she'd have done it years ago, and to hell with what sort of girl it made her.
'The thought had crossed my mind,' Luke replied. He reached for his briefcase and flicked open the catches.
Emily settled back into the beige leather seat and looked out of the window, down at the fields and towns outside London as they blurred into ever smaller smudges of grey and green. 'What conclusions did you draw?' she said distractedly.
'I couldn't possibly comment.'
'That bad?' Was he being serious? Emily stifled a tiny sigh of defeat. Trying not to stare at the handsome face, broad shoulders and lean body of the man sitting diagonally opposite her, trying not to ogle the big tanned hands extracting a report from a folder, wasn't working. It was like struggling to ignore the pull of a very strong magnet. Impossible. Her eyes swivelled to the dark head bent over the papers.
'Unrepeatable,' he replied, glancing up at her.
There went her stomach again. Slowly flipping over at the combination of eyes the colour of the Mediterranean in summer, the sexy half-smile and the deep, rumbling voice. Swooping in a way that had nothing to do with the flight.
Emily wrinkled her nose. 'I can imagine. I'd have run through Lonely to Loopy with a stop-off at Desperate on the way. Not that I am any of those, of course,' she added hastily.
'Of course not,' he said, in a tone that suggested he thought just that. 'How did youguess?'
Ooooh, ouch. 'I simply imagined what sort of person would respond to an ad like that,' she replied sweetly.
Luke sat back and fixed her with a coolly amused stare. 'I see you've regained the power of speech. It's back with a bite.'
Emily fought the urge to squirm under his penetrating gaze and gave him what she thought might look like an apologetic smile. 'Today has taken on an unexpectedly surreal quality. I'm only just getting my head round it.'
The moment they'd met, the instant she'd put her hand in his to shake it, she'd been struck uncharacteristically dumb. Her body had felt as though it had received a thousand-volt charge. Her heart had jumped and she'd gone momentarily dizzy, the blood racing to parts of her body that had been out of action for so long she'd forgotten she had them. She'd never experienced sexual attraction like it, and it was making her feel slightly unhinged.
'You don't invite strange men to transport you to foreign countries often?' he asked, tilting his head to one side.
'I don't invite strange men to transport me anywhere ever.'
'In that case why are you here?'
Emily shuddered. 'You met my sister.'
He nodded. 'A formidable woman.'
He sounded as if he thought this was an admirable quality. Emily frowned and pinched the bridge of her nose. 'You have no idea.'
Four hours earlier
'You did what?' Emily nearly dropped her muffin into her cappuccino as her head snapped up and she gaped at her sister.
'I said I sold you. On the internet.' Anna glanced at her watch and then wiped her sons' faces.
Emily felt a sliver of concern and raked her gaze over her sister's immaculate exterior. Had she gone mad? Anna certainly looked normal, but who knew what could be lurking beneath the surface? If this was what motherhood did to a previously perfectly intelligent, clear-thinking woman then she was glad she'd made the decision never to have children herself.
She nodded as if in understanding. 'Right. You sold me. On the internet. Aren't there laws against things like that?'
'Apparently not. It was surprisingly easy,' replied Anna, calmly folding the tissue and placing it on her empty plate.
'You are joking, aren't you?'
Anna fixed Emily with a stern stare. 'Not at all. I'm deadly serious.'
It was a look Emily was very familiar with. As realisation dawned, her smile slipped from her face. 'Oh, my God. You are serious.'
'Of course. I wouldn't joke about a thing like this.'
Emily began to hyperventilate.
'Now, don't get hysterical,' said Anna, thrusting a glass of water into her hand. 'Deep breaths… If it makes you feel any better, I didn't exactly sell you'
Emily flapped her other hand in front of her face and fought for breath. 'So what did you sell?' she said, when she was finally able to speak.
Anna shrugged. 'A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In this age of equality, a chance to be chivalrous. The rescue of a damsel in distress.'
What? Since when had her sister developed a romantic streak? 'And I'm the damsel?'
'But why would you do that?' Emily asked, utterly bewildered. 'I'm not in distress.'
'You are. The French baggage handlers are on strike.'
Oh, no, not this again.
'Don't look at me like that,' said Anna indignantly. 'Your obstinate refusal to go to Tom's wedding is not healthy. You haven't been out for so much as a drink with anyone since you split up. That's not a single date in over a year. You need closure, and you're not going to get it until you see the rat safely hitched to some other poor woman. Then you'll be able to move on.'
'He may have dumped me and got engaged to an aristocratic French floozy two months later, but he's not a rat,' said Emily wearily, ignoring the sceptical look Anna threw her. 'And for the millionth time I have moved on.'
Anna glanced at her watch. 'Talking of moving on, we need to go home.' She turned, and with an imperceptible nod of her head signalled for the bill.
'Why?' Emily said carefully, tendrils of suspicion winding round her nerves.
'Because the person who won the auction is turning up at any minute.'
Emily gaped in horror. 'What? Now?'
'Of course,' Anna replied, standing up and brushing a crumb off her front. 'The wedding is tomorrow, isn't it?'
Emily could only nod in dumb stupefaction.
'Well, then. You leave this afternoon.' Anna marched to the bar to pay, leaving Emily to unravel the chaos of the last five minutes. But it was all too much. Where did she start?
'Who won?' she managed eventually as they started along the path that led across the common to Anna's house.
'A man called Luke Harrison. He was very determined. The bidding went right to the wire. It was gripping stuff, I can tell you.'
'I'm so glad.' Emily's sarcastic tone went unnoticed.
'So was I. greatsexguaranteed was also extremely persistent, but I had a funny feeling about him.'
'Can't think why. So how is this Luke Harrison going to help me get to France?' Emily panted, struggling to keep up with Anna's brutal pace.
'Private jet. Rather inspired, I thought.'
'But I have plans this weekend. I can't just drop everything.'
Anna shot her a sceptical look. 'A pot that urgently needs glazing?'
Emily bit her lip and nodded.
'You're twenty-eight. You should be Out There. Meeting men. Not hunched over a wheel with clay under your nails. Pots won't keep you warm at night.'
Emily glared at Anna mutinously. 'I have an electric blanket.'
Anna marched on, undeterred.
Emily tried again. 'How do you know he's got a plane? How do you know he's going to turn up? He might be a lunatic. I mean, what sort of person bids for a woman in an internet auction? He could be a kidnapper, a murderer—anyone.' Her voice was rising, becoming more desperate. Anna merely looked at her witheringly and Emily threw her hands up in exasperation. 'You're insane.'
'I'm a genius. Don't be so melodramatic. I spoke to his mother on the phone and discovered that we have friends in common.'
Emily's jaw dropped. 'His mother?'
'I had to get references,' said Anna defensively. 'You don't think I'd send you off with just anyone, do you?'
'I am suddenly at a complete loss as to what you would do.'
'I've arranged for him to pick you up here so that we can check him out first. Just in case.'
Emily ground her teeth. 'It'll be a wasted journey. I'm not going.'
Anna stopped at the bottom of the steps leading up to her front door and rummaged in her bag for the keys. 'Think of the charity.'
Emily's eyes narrowed. 'What charity?'
'The money Mr Harrison paid is going to a charity that investigates and helps prevent maternal mortality.'
Emily gasped. A familiar dull pain clenched her heart and she felt the blood drain from her face. 'That's a low blow, Anna,' she said quietly.
'It's not meant to be, darling. But I spent years bringing you up and I hate to see you wasting your life over that loser. Will you do it for me?'
Emily wavered. She owed her sister so much. Anna had made huge sacrifices on her behalf. When their father had died, fourteen years after their mother, it had been left to Anna to raise her. And she knew she hadn't been the easiest of teenagers to handle. Besides, her sister in this mode was unstoppable, and there was only so much battering she could take. Her resistance crumbled and she let out a resigned sigh. 'OK. Assuming he's not crazy, or worse, I'll go. Can I take David with me?'
'No husband borrowing. Besides, he's at a conference in New York.'
Emily straightened her spine. 'Fine. I'll just have to enter the lion's den single and strong and shod in killer heels.'
'They're already packed.'
Emily raised an eyebrow. 'How ruthlessly efficient.'
Anna inclined her head. 'Thank you.'
'It's not a compliment.'
But Anna wasn't paying attention. She was staring over Emily's shoulder, and her expression became dreamy. 'I think this might be him. Bang on time too.'
Emily turned to look at the man striding towards them. He was tall, broad-shouldered and very good-looking, and a dart of awareness shivered through her. 'If it is,' she murmured, watching the sun glinting off his dark hair, 'I may just forgive you.'
After that her composure had taken such a hammering she couldn't really remember what had happened. Her sensible court-shoe-wearing sister had batted her eyelashes and giggled her way through some very rudimentary questions about his integrity and his intentions, had established that Luke Harrison was single, solvent, and in possession of a plane, and had then bundled Emily into his car without so much as a backward glance. Was it any wonder that she'd been unable to formulate a sensible sentence throughout the journey to the airport?
'So, why are you here?'
Luke's voice jerked her out of her reverie. 'Oh, er—' She stopped. She could hardly tell him the truth. Revealing that she was heading to her ex-fiancé's wedding to another woman would rather negate her earlier declaration that she was neither lonely nor desperate. 'A friend's getting married near Nice, and Anna was under the misapprehension that I wanted to go to the wedding.'
'Scheduled airlines a little pedestrian?'
Emily bristled. 'Of course a man who has a private plane wouldn't know about anything as trivial as industrial action, but for us mere mortals a baggage handlers' strike does tend to put a spanner in the works.'
Luke had the grace to look a little apologetic. Only fleet-ingly, but it was enough to mollify her. 'The only flights that weren't cancelled were full. Which suited me fine.' Emily twiddled a lock of hair around her finger. 'I have better things to do with my weekend than go to a wedding I don't want to attend.'
'Why didn't you say so earlier? I could have dropped you home on the way to the airport.'
'I did think about it, but Anna probably has her spies ready and waiting in France, primed to report back on my every move from the moment I arrive. You saw her earlier. She'd broken into my house to pack and pick up my passport. She didn't tell me that she'd put me up for auction until about half an hour before you showed up, and even then she deliberately waited until we were in a public place so I couldn't throttle her.' Not to mention the emotional blackmail that Anna had deployed with such success. Emily sighed. 'She's utterly devious. It's not worth the grief. I'll just have to grin and bear it and count down the hours until you take me back.'
'She went to a hell of an effort so that you could attend this wedding. Why would she do that if she knew you didn't want to go?'
Emily shrugged evasively. Those blue eyes of his were far too probing for her comfort. 'Beats me. Before she went on maternity leave she used to troubleshoot for one of the big accountancy firms. I think she's been missing the challenge. Do you have siblings?'
'No. I do, however, have relatives with an over-zealous interest in my well-being, so I can sympathise.'
'Perhaps they should meet. We could cast them into a parallel universe where they're forced to watch reality TV on a ten-minute loop for all eternity.'
One corner of Luke's mouth lifted and Emily was instantly transfixed by the movement. What did his lips feel like? she wondered. Soft or firm? What would they feel like moving over hers? Her own mouth tingled at the thought and her pulse leapt. An image of him tugging her into his arms, plastering her up against that hard body, kissing her senseless slammed into her head, making her dizzy and breathless. Then she noticed his smile fading. When she looked up his face was blank, but his eyes had darkened to indigo.
Something resembling irritation flashed across his face. Emily swallowed and tried to get a grip. 'So, what exactly did the advert say?'
'It offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a knight in shining armour. The chance to rescue a damsel in distress. And mentioned the more prosaic need for a plane, a passport and a free weekend.'
Emily bit her lip and nodded. Then she frowned. 'That's it?'
'There was a photo.'
She went cold. A photo?' Oh, God. 'Which one?'
'You were on a beach.'
Emily went even colder. Please, no. She took a deep breath. 'Green bikini?'
'That's the one.'
Freezing to red hot in under a second. It had to be a record, she thought, as her cheeks burned. If it was the picture she was thinking of, she was wearing a green rather-on-the-small-side bikini. In fact, she wasn't so much wearing it as falling out of it. 'I'm going to kill her,' she muttered.
'Why?' she spluttered. Oh, the humiliation.
'You had over a hundred people bidding for you.'
'Really?' Emily's pride swelled for a moment, before mortification squashed it. She dropped her head in her hands. 'How could she do that?' she mumbled. 'Of all the photos… I don't know why she didn' t just put a flyer in a phone box and be done with it.'
Luke laughed and the sound rumbled right through her, scrambling her brain momentarily.
'Dare I ask which category she put me in?'
'Are you sure you want to know?'