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'Oh, for heaven's sake!' Miranda yanked impatiently at the front of the photocopier and banged it open so that she could peer inside. 'Now what?' she demanded. 'I've cleared the jam, I've refilled all the paper trays I can't believe you really need toner too! You're just being difficult.'
Exasperated, she shoved her hand into the machine to release the catch for the toner cartridge, only to catch her finger on a protruding piece of machinery. Jerking back with a yelp, she let out an involuntary exclamation. Miranda didn't normally swear but it would have taken a saint not to lose it after the morning she had had with this machine.
She glared at the photocopier. 'Right, that's it! I've had enough of you now!'
Shaking her stinging finger and too frustrated to think what else to do, Miranda aimed a childish kick at the photocopier with another muttered exclamation.
'Language, language!' A tutting sound from behind her made Miranda's head snap round.
A man was lounging in the doorway of the copying room, grinning at her. And not just any man. He was impossibly handsome, with dark hair, glinting navy blue eyes, the kind of features a male model would kill for and a smile perfectly designed to set most female hearts a-flutter.
Not Miranda's though. Her heart didn't do fluttering. Maybe it skipped, just a little, at the sight of him, but that was just surprise.
That was what she told herself anyway.
She had never met him before, but she knew exactly who he was, of course. There was no mistaking him. Rafe Knighton, darling of the gossip columnists, and the new Chairman and Chief Executive of the Knighton Group, which technically made him her boss.
Andthe last person she would have expected to encounter in the copying room, exuding assurance and glamour. The tall, dark and handsome cliché might have been invented for Rafe Knighton, she thought, determinedly unimpressed. He was immaculately dressed in a beautifully cut suit that fitted perfectly across his broad shoulders. His shirt was a luxuriously plain white, his tie discreet, classy, and knotted with just the right combination of ease and elegance. Miranda would have liked to dismiss him as effeminate, but at close quarters it was all too obvious that there was nothing effete about Rafe Knighton. He was all too solidly male.
Briefly, she wondered what he was doing slumming it on the communications floor. Perhaps he strolled down every few days to thrill the staff with his presence, and amused himself by seeing how long it took the females to swoon at his feet.
If he was waiting for her to do the same, he was in for a long wait, boss or no boss.
On the other hand, being caught swearing and kicking the office equipment probably wasn't the best way to endear herself to the management, Miranda reflected. A swoon might be a better option. It was that, or brazen it out.
Before she had a chance to decide, Rafe Knighton had straightened from the doorway and was strolling into the room as if he owned it.
Which he did, of course.
'I've a good mind to report you to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Photocopiers!' he said, wagging a chastising finger at her. 'That poor machine shouldn't have to put up with that kind of language, when it can't answer back.'
The deadpan delivery was contradicted by the dancing humour in his eyes and ripple of amusement in his voice. The man practically oozed charm, Miranda thought, annoyed that she still had to brace herself to resist it.
As if she didn't have enough to annoy her at the moment.
It was too late to swoon, anyway.
'The photocopier started it,' she said coldly.
Rafe's eyes gleamed as he studied her. He was still getting used to the idea that Knighton's wealth and prestige was his responsibility now, and the realisation could be oppressive at times. Whenever he started feeling that the walls were closing in on him, he took a walk. He told everyone that he wanted to familiarise himself with the company, which was true, but Rafe knew that these tours of the building were more about his own restlessness and inability to decide whether he had done the right thing in coming back.
Knighton's was an institution, with a fiercely loyal and dedicated staff, and Rafe sometimes felt that everyone belonged here except himand now this girl, turning the air in the copying room blue. Her involuntary exclamation had been so unexpected that he had stopped as he walked past the door, captivated by the slight girl in a neat, dull suit swearing at the photocopier.
Entertained by the contrast, Rafe had been unable to resist finding out more.
He hadn't seen her before. At least, he didn't think so. The most memorable thing about her seemed to be the plain brown hair pulled tightly back from her face in a very unflattering style. Rafe's first impression had been one of primness, contrasting sharply with the words coming out of her mouth, but as she stood there and looked back at him with eyes that were clear and green and very direct she suddenly didn't seem so nondescript any more, and his interest sharpened.
'We haven't met, have we?'
'No,' she said curtly. 'I'm just a temp.'
'Well, welcome.' Apparently oblivious to her lack of enthusiasm, he smiled and held out his hand. 'I'm Rafe Knighton.'
As if she wasn't supposed to know!
Miranda might have little interest in celebrities, but even she knew about Rafe Knighton. He had been the ultimate playboy until four or five years ago when he had disappeared from London, presumably to drift around some other playground of the rich and famous, and there had been almost feverish excitement in the gossip pages when he had returned a couple of months earlier to take up the reins of the Knighton Group.
His father had famously keeled over with a heart attack in the middle of negotiating a mega-million dollar deal in New York and since then the business pages had been full of speculation about Rafe's ability to step into his father's spectacularly successful shoes.
Speculation of a more lurid nature was equally rife in the gossip columns and celebrity magazines. At thirty-five, Rafe was still unmarried, and since inheriting his father's fortune was rarely mentioned without the tag of 'the most eligible bachelor in Britain' attached to his name. He was welcomed back onto the A-list with open arms, and was photographed with any number of beautiful women on his arm, but as yet there had been no obvious front-runner for the title of Mrs Knighton.
Miranda knew all this because her younger sister, Octavia, avidly drank up every mention of Rafe Knighton and was determined to meet him. She had been delighted when she had heard that Miranda would be working for the Knighton Group.
'Wangle me an invitation to meet Rafe,' she had urged her sister, while Miranda had stared at her in disbelief.
'Octavia, I'm only there as a temp,' she tried to tell her. 'Temps don't even see chief executives, let alone meet them and get on wangling terms! They're right at the bottom of the pecking order. I won't even get within spitting distance of Rafe Knighton.'
And yet, here he was, holding out his hand, and clearly waiting for her to introduce herself.
Miranda sighed inwardly. She disapproved of everything Rafe Knighton stood for, and she didn't like the way he seemed to fill up the room with his good looks and his smile and that almost tangible charm. That feeling that he was using more than his fair share of the room left her edgy and more than a little breathless, and Miranda didn't like it at all, but she could hardly refuse to shake his hand.
'Miranda Fairchild,' she said reluctantly, and touched her palm to his.
She made to withdraw it right away, but Rafe was too quick for her. His fingers closed warm and firm around hers in a proper clasp as he smiled down at her. The touch of his hand sent a strange feeling snaking down her spine, and she snatched her hand away, prickling with irritation.
Couldn't he let up with that macho charm for an instant? It was so clearly an automatic reaction with him. All that intense gazing into her eyes and smiling and holding her hand just a little too long!
Miranda was exasperated. Surely he didn't expect her to believe that he had actually seen her? He was like a big tom cat on the prowl, making overtures to any female that happened to cross his path. Look at him, just waiting for her to melt at the knees and smile mistily back at him!
She had absolutely no intention of gratifying his vanity by smiling at all, let alone mistily, but she was annoyed to discover that her knees were not, in fact, quite as steady as they should have been.
Miranda scowled at the thought, and Rafe raised an eyebrow at her expression. 'Is there a problem?'
Perversely, this evidence that he was not only seeing her but watching her quite closely made Miranda even crosser. She could hardly tell him the truth: Oh, I'm just irritated with my knees for going all weak when you smiled. Now she was going to have to lie, and she hated doing that.
'I'm sorry, it's just a bit sore,' she improvised, holding up her grazed finger and taking the opportunity to step back. Why couldn't he go away and leave her alone?
'You've hurt yourself?' Rafe frowned in quick concern at the raw graze on her hand.
' I didn't do it,' she corrected him crisply. 'It was the photocopier that bit me. I told you it started it! I don't know why you're worrying about the machine. You should get in touch with the RSPCT instead.'
'The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to ?'
'Temps,' she said, and he laughed.
She reminded him of a little bird, he thought, one with drab plumage but bright-eyed and alert. Rafe liked people and usually people liked him back, but since he had taken over Knighton's he had come to wonder whether there was an element of sycophancy in the smiles that met him wherever he went. This girl with her prim outfit and her crisp voice and her clear, disapproving gaze made a refreshing change.
'That looks sore,' he said. 'Are you OK?'
'Don't worry, I'm not going to sue you for a grazed finger!' she said and turned back to the photocopier, but Rafe was intrigued now, and refused to take the hint that he should leave her to get on.
Instead he settled himself against the table and studied her with a discerning eye. It was a long time since he had met a woman who made so little of herself. That suit she was wearing was appalling, for instance. There was no way of telling what kind of figure she had, but she had other assets, Rafe realised on looking closer. Her hair was an ordinary brown, but shiny and very clean, and she had beautiful skin and quiet, fine-boned features. If she wore a better-fitting suit, let down her hair and bothered with a little make-up, she wouldn't look too bad at all.
'Which department are you working in?'
'Communications,' said Miranda briefly, wishing that he would go away. She crouched down and peered into the photocopier again.
'Ah, yes, you must be covering for Simon's PA Is it Helen? Isn't there some problem with her mother?'
'It's Ellen, and it's her father who's ill,' Miranda corrected him, but she was secretly impressed that he had remembered as much as he had. In her experience as a temp, chief executives of companies the size of the Knighton Group rarely bothered to learn the names of their junior staff, let alone remember details of their domestic problems. 'I'm just covering for a week while she sorts out some care for him.'
'And after that?'
She shrugged. 'I'll have to hope the agency comes up with another assignment for me.'
'Have you been temping long?'
'A few months,' she said uninformatively.
Rafe looked down at her as she frowned into the photocopier. The overhead light gleamed on her hair, and his gaze noted the sweep of her lashes and the way the fine brows were drawn together over her nose. Her face had intelligence and character, he thought. She seemed an unlikely temp somehow.
'What were you doing before that?'
She shot an irritated glance up at him. 'Are you always this interested in your temporary staff?'
'I'm interested in all my staff,' said Rafe, wondering why she didn't want to tell him. 'How do you find Knighton's as a place to work?'
Miranda shrugged. 'It's fine. Everyone is very professional.'
Except the chief executive, she wanted to add, but didn't. Temping might be a bit of a climb-down from board member, but she needed the money and there were worse places for temporary placements.
Working here was bittersweet. So much was familiar. Like Fairchild's, the Knighton Group was a family business, a dynasty, but one that had embraced new technologies and business practices to become a household name with global interests, while Fairchild's had traded for too long on its past reputation.
Still, there was no use feeling bitter. She had a job to do, and she just wished Rafe Knighton would let her get on with it instead of lounging there interrogating her about things that were none of his business.
'It's just a shame about the machinery,' she added, pulling awkwardly at the toner cartridge, and muttering under her breath as it stuck firmly in place.
'Can I help?' asked Rafe, bending down to peer into the machine.
'Not unless you'd like to go out and buy a new photocopier,' said Miranda as crisply as she could, but it was hard with him so close beside her. The room was airless enough to begin with, and with six feet of male looming over her she was feeling distinctly short of oxygen.
'Is it broken?'
'I can't get the toner cartridge out.'
'I like to make sure my staff have the equipment they need to do their jobs properly,' said Rafe, 'and I don't want you to think I'm mean, but purchasing an entirely new machine when we just need to replace a cartridge does seem a touch extravagant.'
Miranda sucked in her breath, irritated anew by the undercurrent of laughter in his voice. 'I wasn't being serious,' she snapped. Cautiously, she reached back into the innards of the copier. 'If I could just ' She grunted with effort, grimacing as her fingers felt for the catch once more. 'Oh, come on, stop being so difficult!'
Rafe observed her with amusement as she sat back on her heels with a sigh of frustration. 'Do you always talk to photocopiers?'