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If practice did, as they claimed, make perfect, then Anna's smile would be delivering just the right mixture of cool, collected confidence and deference. Beneath her neatly buttoned pink tweed jacket, however, her heart was thudding so hard that she had an image of it battering its way through her ribcage as she reeled off her opinion of the recent changes in the primary school curriculum.
Her heart stayed in place and, speaking with the appropriate level of confidence, she held her audience's attentionor behind their intent looks were they actually planning their evening meals?
Anna lifted her chin and pushed away the doubts. She told herself to relax, and if she messed up? Well, it was only a job. Only a job? Who was she kidding?
The philosophical attitude might fool the rest of the world but this was not just any job for Annaa fact she had realised when her two interview dates had clashed. The choice seemed simple, between a highly regarded local school within walking distance of her flat, where it had been hinted, strictly off the record, that she was a very strong candidate, or the post at a remote school on the north-west coast of Scotlanda job she wouldn't have even applied for had she not seen that article in the dentist's waiting room.
Clearly a no-brainer, and yet here she was desiring this job more than she had wanted anything in a long time.
'Of course, we all want young people to turn into rounded individuals but discipline is important, don't you think, Miss Henderson?'
Anna tipped her head and nodded gravely. 'Of course.' She focused on the thin woman at the far end of the line-up who had posed the question before including the rest of the panel. 'But I think in an atmosphere where every child feels valued and is encouraged to reach their potential, discipline is rarely a problem. At least that has been my experience in the classroom.'
The balding man sitting to her right glanced down at the paper in front of him.
'And this experience has been almost exclusively in city schools?' A significant glance and wry smile was shared with his panel members. 'A crofting community like this one is not exactly what you have been used to, is it?'
Anna, who had been anticipating this question, relaxed and nodded. Her friends and family had already voiced the same opinion, only not so tactfully, implying that she'd lose the will to live within a month in this cultural desert! Ironically the only people who hadn't offered a negative opinion had been the ones who probably hated the idea more than anyone else.
If Aunt Jane and Uncle George, whose only daughter had recently made her home in Canada, had thrown up their hands in horror at the prospect of the niece they had always treated like a second daughter leaving too, it would have been understandable but, no, the couple had remained their normal, quietly supportive selves. 'True but '
A page was turned and bushy brows lifted. 'It says here you have a good working knowledge of Gaelic?'
'I'm rusty, but until I was eight I lived on Harris. My dad was a vet. I only moved to London after my parents' death.' Anna had no memory of the horrific accident that she had escaped totally unscathed. People had called it a miracle but Anna thought miracles were kinder. 'So working and living in the Highlands would be returning to my roots, something I have always wanted to do.'
This conviction that her life, if not her frozen heart, belonged in the Highlands had made her ignore advice and push ahead with her application for the post of head teacher at this tiny primary school in an isolated but beautiful part of the Scottish north-west coast.
This was not a knee-jerk reaction to her ex, Mark, or the near-miss wedding and she was most definitely not running away!
Teeth gritted, she pushed away the thought and lifted her chin. Mark, who she had never persuaded to take a holiday anywhere without sun and sand let alone north of the border, would have been bewildered by her choice but his bewilderment was no longer a factor. She was a free agent and she wished him and his underwear model all the happiness they both richly deserved, and if that involved the stick thin blonde gaining a hundred pounds all the better! Anna might not be heartbroken or devastatedshe had seen devastated and had taken active steps to avoid itbut she was human.
She'd show the doubters that she could do it, but she had to get the job first. Shaking off her doubts, she focused on staying positive, desperately hoping it was enough to convince the panel to give her a chance.
So far, so good. Was this sliver of optimism inviting fate to cut her down to size? Anna blinked away the thought and focused on the question being asked, determined not to blow it now when it was going so well. She was not, as she had half expected, simply there to make up the numbers. Instead it was wide open: she really had a shot here.
It was going well.
Very well, she corrected mentally as the chairman of the panel leaned back in his seat and looked at her over his half-rimmed spectacles and produced his first smile.
'Well, Miss Henderson, thank you very much for coming today. Is there anything you'd like to ask us?'
Anna, who had compiled a list of intelligent and practical questions for this moment, found herself shaking her head.
'Then if you'd like to wait in the staff room we won't keep you in suspense long, but I think I can speak for us all when I say that you have impressed'
Anna, who had got to her feet and smoothed down her skirt, stifled a frustrated sigh as after a short knock the door to her left opened, causing the interviewer to leave this promising sentence incomplete. A moment later it was not the cold air from the draughty corridor that made her gasp but the person who entered the room.
He had to be used to gasps, looking as he did. He was something special.
Early thirties? Several inches over six feet, lean, broad shoulders, endless long legs, athletically muscular and absolutely stunningly gorgeous! Possessing a wide, sensually moulded mouth, dark, thickly lashed heavily lidded eyes, and the sort of strong, chiselled features that a Greek statue would have envied, the new arrival ticked every box on Anna's personal list of attributes required of dark brooding hero, from the top of his dark, tousled, damp head to his mud splashed shoes.
Past the static buzz in her head, Anna registered the vibrant timbre of his deep voice but not what he said to the members of the panelnot the words maybe, but she did get the aura of raw masculinity he projected. It would have been hard not to!
Along with sex, he literally exuded authority from every perfect pore. Was it possible that this identikit Hollywood action-hero figure was the missing interview panel member whose absence had been apologised for?
Anna hadn't given the no-show another thought, but if this was him she could see that his tardiness had been a stroke of luck for her, given the fact she was struggling and failing to hold his gaze without falling victim to a deep, very un-head-teacher-like blush, and shamefully the heat was not confined to her previously pale cheeks! The chances that she would have been able to manage an entire interview without doing something mortifying were slim. It was all very disturbing, possibly due to the accumulated stress of an interview on top of the long journey north. Whatever its cause, she had never in her life experienced a physical reaction like this to a man beforeeven her scalp was tingling.
Mortified and bemused by her reaction, she clasped her clammy hands together in a grip that turned her knuckles white as she struggled to control this over-the-top reaction. Then he was looking away, thank goodness. Anna shook her head to clear the shivering a moment later, a response to the touch of the dark eyes that brushed her face again. She had never stepped off a high cliff into velvety pitch darkness but she was pretty sure that if she did it would feel this way!
The intense, narrow-eyed stare was not intended to make the recipient feel warm and fluffy, that was for sure. For a moment she thought she had glimpsed a flicker of recognition in those steel-grey depths, but then it was gone and she was valiantly struggling to regain some of her shattered composure when the chairman of the interview panel, a local councillor, made the necessary introductions.
'Cesare, this is Miss Henderson, our last, though in no way least, candidate.'
The smile sent Anna's way was warm with approval.
'There are tea and biscuits in the office. Mrs Sinclair will look after you.' The chairman stepped to one side to allow Anna access to the door and turned his head to address his next comment to the tall man with the Italian-sounding name and the glowing olive-toned complexion. 'Miss Henderson was just leaving us for a moment while we'
The speculation buzzing in Anna's head was louder than the flock of seagulls outside.
Cesarethe name was as un-British as his looks if you discounted the spookily pale silver-grey eyes. So what was his story?
The answer was not long coming, or at least part of it.
'Miss Henderson, this is Cesare Urquart. He is the reason the school enjoys the connections with local businesses you were so complimentary about.'
Anna was so flustered she barely recalled her name, let alone the comment she had made earlier.
'Mr Urquart.' Relieved she sounded relatively sane despite her temporary but dramatic hormone imbalance, Anna tipped her head back and in the process found herself on the receiving end of a penetrating and distinctly chilly stare.
'Anna was also very impressed by our green credentials.' The older man appeared oblivious to the weird undercurrentsdid that mean it was all in her head?
Her hand on the door handle, she paused as he added, 'It is thanks to Cesare's generosity and foresight that the school not only produces enough electricity for itself but sells it back to the grid. There was talk at one point of the school closing like so many other small schools before Cesare took a personal interest.'
There was a pause, and Anna knew a response was expected. So she nodded and made an admiring noise in the back of her throat, but would it kill the man to smile?
'I have a personal interest.'
The woman on the panel spoke up. 'And how is little Jasmine? We have all missed her, Killaran.'
So rich and influential Mr Urquartor Killaran?appeared to be a parent. Presumably with the child came a wife and mother who was his glamorous female equivalent? Rich incomers who had bought their way into the hearts of the locals? Her cynicism allowed room for the possibility their motives might be totally altruistic. Either way she knew there were many small schools under threat of closure who would have envied the village their rich benefactor. It was just sad that they needed one.
'Miss Henderson.' Cesare Urquart took a step her way and her grip on the door handle tightened. She was forced to tilt her head back to meet his eyes and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other feeling more like an errant schoolgirl than a prospective headmistress. 'I must apologise for my late arrival.'
He didn't sound sorry, and the smile that he gave did not reach his spectacular eyes. Anna was receiving the strong unspoken message that this disturbingly handsome man did not like her. Fair enough, she didn't particularly like him. She returned his smile with one of equal insincerity. She might not have been as good an actor as he was because she saw a flash in his eyes before she brought her lashes down in a protective shield.
'You have no objection if I ask you a little about yourself?' he asked. Like wrecked any marriages recently?
Of course he knew the answer. Women like her rarely changed; they sailed through life leaving a trail of destruction in their selfish wake.
'Of course not,' Anna lied as Cesare Urquart shrugged off the dark cashmere overcoat he wore to reveal an elegant grey suit and a body that appeared to consist of solid muscle. She was shocked to feel desire clutch low in her belly and averted her shamed stare, focusing hard on her steepled fingers pressed together until her knuckles went white.
She had to get a gripthe atmosphere had definitely changed.
Cesare had walked into the room, seen a beautiful woman and felt a visceral stab of attraction that hadn't diminished even after he had recognised her and experienced a deluge of outraged anger. Anger so extreme that he had literally been a reckless breath away from confronting her right there, outing her in front of the panel.
Fortunately the shock had flattened out, though not the testosterone-fuelled heat in his belly. Hormones were indiscriminate things; however, he was not. He had not allowed his hormones to rule him since he was a schoolboy.
He firmly believed a man could not be in control of any situation unless he was in control of himself. Ce-sare liked to be in control.
Like any other situation, this one needed a cool, analytical approach. When he applied this rule two things were clear to him: she was the last woman on the planet equipped with the moral authority to be a head teacher, and she had won over the interview panel.
And to be fair, had he been meeting her for the first time, even with his razor-sharp instincts for reading people, he might not have guessed that a first-class immoral bitch hid behind the angelic face. Even given his insider knowledge it was a struggle to reconcile what he knew her to be capable of with the guileless, quite disturbingly direct bright blue stare.
He did not allow the seeds of doubt to take hold; neither did he doubt his ability to convince the other panel members, help them see beyond the sexy librarian suit and the smile, that she was the wrong person for the job. He would be totally impartial while he gave her the chance to prove it for him.
As he took his seat behind the long table his attention was drawn to the gleaming top of her head. On the occasion when he had last seen her his attention had been captured, not by this woman's colouring, but what she had been doing, namely publicly devouring the face of his married best friend!
Even with his attention on other things, under the subdued lights of the restaurant her hair, cut into a sleek jaw-length style, had been definably auburn. But under the harsh, unforgiving electric light of this room, grown long enough now to twist into a neat knot that revealed the long, smooth curve of her throat, it shone as bright as flame, rich, dramatic, glossy copper interwoven with threads of bright gold.
Paul always had had a thing for redheadssome had even been naturalbut he had married a blonde and despite this woman's attempts to wreck that marriage he still was.
Cesare continued to study the face of the woman who had almost cost his friend his marriage and felt desire as indiscriminate as it was strong twist in his belly.
He could recognise his response, see it for what it was: a primal male reaction to a beautiful woman. Paul hadn't, but then his friend always had been a hopeless romantic, frequently making the classic mistake of confusing sex with love.
The night in question Paul had followed him out of the restaurant, catching him up as he was about to get in his car. 'It isn't what you think.'