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The tall, dark-haired guy in the suit strode into the meeting room of Martin Place Investments, and the hum of conversation faded into silence.
Mirandi Summers sat straight in her chair, her pulse-rate a little elevated. Everyone else was in black or shades of grey. She hoped her violet dress wasn't too pretty for the office.
'Morning,' Joe Sinclair said without bothering to glance at his assembled market analysts, too concerned with checking the hardware for his presentation.
'Morning, Joe.' The responses came from around the room, some bright and eager to please, others more subdued.
This morning Joe looked authoritative and slightly on edge, something in his manner creating more than the usual tension. How he'd changed in ten years. Hard to imagine him burning up the bitumen on his bike now.
'Ah, here we go.' The boyish grin that had the temps drooling made a brief appearance on his lean, tanned face, then vanished.
A brilliant, multi-coloured graph illuminated the screen. On it a number of spiky criss-crossing lines curved upwards, shooting towards infinity.
'There now. Look at that.' Joe's cool blue eyes grew sharp and focused, a line creasing the space between his brows. 'You see before you the future. Looks good, doesn't it?' He sent a commanding glance around at his employees and Mirandi joined the chorus of assent. 'And it will be good, people, I think I can promise you that. It will, but only if we are willing to learn from the mistakes of the past.'
He frowned and pulled a face. 'Tomorrow, as you know, I'll be flying off to this conference in Europe. Before I leave I want to know everyone has a clear view of the factors influencing MPI's current direction.'
He touched the button again and another graph lit the screen, this one's projections not quite so sunny. He swept the faces of listeners. 'I'm keen to hear your ideas. Can anyone suggest'
Suddenly he stopped in mid-sentence. His frown deepening, he swung around until his acute blue glance lighted on Mirandi at the end of the row.
'Oher Miss Summers. You're here. Are youintending to stay?'
Mirandi felt something grab in her insides. Under the weight of her red hair her nape grew uncomfortably warm. 'Well, yes. Of course.' She glanced about her. All the other market analysts were assembled, their laptops at the ready. 'This is the future projections meeting, isn't it?'
Joe Sinclair gave his ear a meditative rub. 'Yes, it is. Just that I was under the impressionRyan had mentioned something he wanted you to do this morning. Didn't I hear you say that, Ryan?'
Beside Mirandi Ryan Patterson stirred himself to attention. 'Oh, did I? Yeah. Yeah, that's right, Joe. Sorry, Mirandi. I forgot to mention the Trevor file.'
Mirandi gave a small, gurgling laugh. 'Oh, the Trevor file. Now that's a mistake from the past if ever there was one.' Everyone joined in her light-hearted laugh, including Ryan Patterson. Everyone except Joe Sinclair, that was. His black lashes were lowered, as it it pained him to look at her.
Smarting, Mirandi changed position slightly and crossed her legs. 'As it happens, Joe, I've reconciled the Trevor file. It's all finished and accounted for.'
There was a moment of stunned silence, then the other analysts burst into a round of surprised applause and congratulations. Mirandi couldn't help but feel gratified. The Trevor file was notorious and had been around for a long time. Perfect material for a new MA to cut her teeth on. Especially if the boss needed something to keep her occupied whilst keeping her at a distance.
Joe smiled too, though Mirandi felt his quick smouldering glance leave a trail of sparks down her legs. 'Have you, now? Slick work. But have you written the letters to old Trevor and his sons to let them know the outcome?'
Mirandi's flush climbed higher, but she said in dulcet tones, 'Well, as you know, Joe, Ryan's assistant will be back next week and I suspect she'd like to have that pleasure.'
Beneath his lashes, Joe's half-lidded glance lasered Mirandi from across the room, though he said with silky gentleness, 'I don't think you understand quite how we operate here, Miss Summers. Until those letters are in the mail the file is incomplete. I'm sure you don't want to leave unfinished business for others to deal with.'
Mirandi felt a savage jump in her blood pressure, though she controlled it, surrendering to the command and rising from her chair with cool grace. 'Unfinished business?' She threw him a mocking smile. 'Heaven forbid. What would you know about that, Joe?'
She made a point of giving Ryan and the others a cheeky grin and a wave, then swept from the room, feeling a visceral flash from Joe's eyes sear through the fabric of her dress.
As she strode back to her desk along the corridor his voice drifted after her. 'Are you free to give us your attention now, Ryan?'
It took her a couple of hours to get over the latest clash, but she cooled down in time. She was determined not to go home with tears in her eyes this night. In fact, she might have managed to forget all about it by the end of the day if Ryan Patterson hadn't found something else for her to do. Might.
But he had, and ironically here she was, in the middle of the afternoon, approaching no-woman's land. Joseph Sinclair's private residence.
Twenty-second floor. Apartment four.
Leave the folders on the table in the foyer where Joe can easily find them, and hotfoot it straight back to work in time for the three o'clock credit review, were Ryan's spoken instructions. Unspoken, but lurking under the surface like crocodiles, was his more crucial advice. Don't linger there hoping for a chance to flirt, sweetheart. Forget leaving any traces of yourself behind to intrigue him. No strands of your flaming red hair or whiffs of your perfume, strategically squirted here and there. He's no good for the likes of you. He'd use you up without a second thought and break you in the process.
As if Mirandi didn't know that already. She had personal experience. If eyes were the windows to the soul, the colour of Joe Sinclair's was a liar. That heavenly blue had already lured her in once only to leave her floundering, and she wasn't a kid of eighteen any more, naive and willing to be enchanted by a charming young rebel with nothing to lose and everything to prove.
She couldn't have been persuaded to set foot in Joe's posh apartment building if her entire floor hadn't been overstretched with preparations for his big junket to France, and no one else available.
2204. Mirandi paused before the imposing door. Funny how even with a legitimate card key in her hand she felt that prickle of intruder's guilt. Noiselessly, the lock flashed green, she walked in and
Oh, wow. The light. The space. And through those double doors into the spacious sitting roomthe views.
So this was who he was now. Of course, if an outlaw's natural brilliance had skyrocketed him up the corporate ladder to the highest echelon in an investment firm, why wouldn't he live in a palace at eye level with the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge?
Hypnotised by the grandeur, she stepped through the double doors, still clutching the folders, and tiptoed the couple of miles across Joe Sinclair's satin hardwood floor to gaze out through the glass. Sydney looked like the postcards from this height, all blue sea, sparkling rooftops and scrapers under a bright azure sky.
She turned and cast an awed eye over the joint, inhaling deeply to soak in the atmosphere. It smelled rich. The furnishings were spare, but tasteful. Mahogany and leather, a richly-hued oriental rug, a couple of paintings.
This glossy apartment was a million miles from that two-roomed flat, their favourite trysting place all those long ago summer afternoons where Joe had initiated her into the delights of passion.
Her eye fell on a photo, frozen in time inside a glass prism. It showed a decrepit motorbike leaning against a wall. It was Joe's old motorbike, before he'd rescued it from rust and made it shine. His pride and joy.
Regret for that long ago summer welled up in her, and, like the sentimental fool she was, even while she smiled in remembrance tears misted her eyes. For a minute she was back in the magic time, the summer she turned eighteen.
It had been late spring, for the jacarandas were in flower, purple carpets underfoot all over Lavender Bay. As sweet and glowing in her mind as if it had been yesterday she was there, standing under the spreading boughs of the jacaranda in the churchyard after morning service, fresh out of school and in love after one brief, world-shaking encounter. There she was, dreamily listening to Auntie Mim chat with friends while her father, who was Captain of the Lavender Bay chapter of the Christian Army, was still engaged in farewelling his flock at the church door.
She could still see her old love-struck self. Nodding, smiling, pretending to listen, holding her secret clutched to her heart until her romantic radar, newly alert, pricked up its ears at the approach of a motorcycle.
A wild hope bloomed inside her, and she swung around just as the big bike roared into the paved entrance and skidded to a halt, its racket idling down to a low, predatory growl.
Astride the mean machine was Jake Sinclair's wayward son, Joe, looking long, lean and darkly satanic as his cool blue gaze combed the little clusters of friends and families in their Sunday uniforms and pastels. Black jeans outlined his powerful thighs, while a black leather vest left his bronzed, sinewy arms bare and highlighted the glossy raven black of his hair and two-day beard.
'What's he doing here?' Auntie Mim frowned. 'What could he be wanting?'
Though Mirandi had often noticed him aboutwho among the females of Lavender Bay hadn't?she'd only spoken to him for the first time the day before when he'd helped her retrieve her books from a puddle outside the library.
After years of steeping herself in romantic sagas and grand passions played out on the Yorkshire moors, Mirandi knew instinctively what he wanted. Who. And to her intense and terrified joy, his bold blue gaze lit on her with an electric summons that sizzled across the paved churchyard and straight to her ovaries.
She was gripped with the purest excitement she'd ever experienced. For a second she vacillated. On the one hand there were her friends, her father, Auntie Mim, the entire church gathering, and on the other the bad boy on the big bike.
Then Joe Sinclair cocked his handsome head at her and grinned. A primitive urge as deep and irresistible as a cosmic force blazed to life inside her. She took a step in his direction, faltered, took another step, then, thrusting her hymnal into Auntie Mim's grasp, so as not to worry the innocent woman, breathed, 'Auntie, I think I can guess. He's in search of salvation.'
Then she walked across the yard.
'Well, hello, Joe,' she said, every inch the pastor's gracious daughter, though her excited pulse was effervescing through her veins like raspberry fizz. 'Why don't you come in and join us?'
Joe Sinclair flicked a glance across the goggling congregation, then his black lashes made a sleepy descent over his smiling gaze. 'Or you could come for a ride.'
This was only the second time she'd had a chance to dwell on his face up close for any length of time, and she couldn't take her eyes off him. He had a strong straight nose, sexy, chiselled mouth and jaw and gorgeous cheekbones. He was all lean, hard and angular, except for his black lashes. They were amazingly long and luxuriant, but in a masculine way that caught at her lungs and melted her very bone marrow.
'Oh ' she faltered, plunged into a dilemma ' I don't think Well, my friends are all And there'sthere's my auntie.'
He broke into a grin then that illuminated his lean face and made him so handsome her insides curled over. 'I haven't come for your auntie.'
She didn't hesitate very much longer. With a hasty, placatory wave at Mim, she climbed onto the passenger seat, tucked her skirt primly around her knees, let her fingers sink into his lean ribs and was swept away on the most exhilarating ride of her life.
Oh, it had been thrilling. Clinging to Joe on the bike was the closest intimate contact she'd ever had with a raw, vibrant man.
And, unbelievably for a lanky girl with red hair and no boyfriend experiencehardly even a first kiss to boast of, unless she counted Stewart Beale and a clumsy pash at the school dancehe'd taken her back to his flat and kissed her until her insides melted like dark chocolate and her brain turned to mush.
Then he'd gently but firmly unbuttoned her modest little blouse with his beautiful lean hands and stroked her breasts until she trembled with a delicious fever. And then he'd unzipped her Sunday skirt, and with artful, virile skill had demonstrated things to her about riding she'd only ever read about in trashy magazines.
Oh, it had been a golden time. Joe was cynical and mocking about serious things like church, but tender and affectionate with her. He didn't mock her when she tootled her recorder on Saturday mornings in the mall with the church band, though she felt so self-conscious she frowned the whole time so as not to be tempted to laugh.
Every day with him was an adventure. He made her listen to songs, really listen, and in between his university studies and part-time work introduced her to writers and ideas she'd never before encountered.
He was passionate about music, rock especially, and animals, and could be so enchanted by the beauty of a wren or a honey-eater he would make her stand still for minutes so as not to scare it.
She could still hear his voice, urging her to take her time. 'Look,' he'd say. 'Look properly! Joe's mother was a painter, he'd once told her, and had taught him how to really look at birds and natural things from when he was a tiny little boy. And he was an artist himself of a sort. Once in the flat she stumbled on some poems he'd composed. Vivid little pictures painted in just a few bright words.
She was supposed to be enrolling in uni, but how could she concentrate on such mundane stuff as her future when she was intoxicated with love? So she deferred her enrolment, and told Auntie Mim and her father she needed a gap year to experience life.
Mim was unimpressed. 'He'll never amount to anything. He's nothing but trouble, that lad. Why can't you find some nice, steady boy from the church?' She'd have been surprised to learn he could find beauty in simple things. That often when Mirandi was in danger of pushing the limits of recklessness too far, it was Joe's steadying hand that restrained her.