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Dr Gabe Hollingsworth glowered at the bumper sticker on the car in front; the streamlined silver silhouettes reminded him that tomorrow was recruitment day. Half his team would be there to check out the possible additions to the posse of alluring females. But while the players saw the dancers as fresh game, Gabe reckoned the women were the hunters, not the hunted, with their sparkling eyes, suggestive poses and PhDs in serious flirting. They might officially 'support' the country's greatest rugby club, but they'd high-kicked more than one man's life right into touch. Including his. So he'd be light years away from the stadium at audition hour tomorrow.
He took the next left, while the silver-stickered car went straight on out of sight. Relieved, Gabe automatically glanced at the property on the edge of the park. He'd been curious so long it had become a habit. So he saw it immediatelythe rough bit of board with 'To Let' and a mobile number scrawled on it that hadn't been there this morning. Gabe pulled over and put a hand to his pocket, let it drop again without retrieving his phone. He was right outsidethere'd be no harm in walking to the front door and making enquiries in person, would there?
Assuming he could find the front door.
A decrepit garage stood on the edge of the footpath while the rest of the front boundary was marked by ferocious planting. He walked the length of the two-metre-high prickly 'hedge' of trees so intertwined you couldn't see through their thick evergreen foliage, then he peered behind the sign precariously tacked in front of the rusted letterbox. He saw hidden there what could be a narrow goat track between the branchesmake that a single-file ant track. He winced as gnarled twigs scratched his bare arms. Pushing through, he figured it was an abandoned wreck of a house, probably in the midst of some development argument with greenies on one side wanting it to be absorbed into the park, while property tycoons fought on the other for consent to demolish it and put some apartment or office block in its prime central-city location. But the spiky green fortification intrigued him and the idea of having a central-city hideaway appealed given the fatal attraction nightmare his last fling had become. No chance of some unhinged ex-lover carrying out a home invasion herea high-maintenance type like Diana would never risk her skin and nails to get through. Hell, he could barely get through. But he ignored the scratches and catches at his clothing and hair; the resistance made him all the more determined to see what was beyond. He snapped branches and stomped over the rough ground and suddenly was out in open space, blinking in the brightness of the summer evening.
He straightened, forgetting the zillion stinging scrapes on his skin as he stared. It wasn't an abandoned wreck at all.
Roxie only had the downstairs bathroom to do and the place was clean, empty and ready for occupation. She picked up the spray bottle of foul-smelling chemical disinfectant and straightened her sore shoulders. She was determined to get it finished tonight because the optimist in her hoped people might call about renting the house tomorrow. Flicking on the hot tap, she stepped right into the shower cubicle. Getting wet didn't matter because as soon as she was done she'd head to her studio, have a real shower and flop into bed. She hunched down to get into the corners, pointing the jet of water ahead, and furiously wiped the walls. She'd spent most of the day cleaning, had practised her routines as rest breaks to stop herself dwelling on how different the place looked without furniture. It would never be the same now, but would always be homeher heart. This place was all she had left.
She snorted at herself and went overboard with the spray to stave off the OTT melancholic thoughts. The shower was hardly dirtyhadn't been used in monthsbut she wanted it immaculate, for prospective tenants to see the perfect condition so they'd feel obligated to maintain it just so. Because, much as she didn't want them, she needed tenants. Money of course, so she could finally get on with the rest of her life.
Her eyes burned as she scrubbed. Not from tearsthey'd long since dried up. No, it was the pungent fumes of the industrial-strength cleaner setting fire to her senses and not in a good way. She held her breath as she swiped with the sponge but still the acidity swept over her. She shook her head to stop the fuzzy hum, grabbed the shower jet to sluice the suds away more quickly. But the fumes grew overwhelmingly strong. Now, between the suds and the steam and the stench, she could hardly see. She couldn't hear properly either, because over the sound of the running water she thought she could hear someone calling out. But there wasn't anyone here to call for her any more.
Still holding her breath, she stumbled out of the shower, not bothering to turn off the taps, desperate to get to a window because she felt horribly faint.
'Are you okay?'
Roxie jumped, inhaled a last deep breath of chemical vapour and then screamed blue murder. For a method of stopping a faint, there was nothing better. Adrenalin flooded her system in a mad torrent, sharpening her mind and her muscles. Sadly not her vision. She kicked herself for leaving the bottle of cleaner in the shower. She could have used it like pepper spray or something. Instead she was the one temporarily blind. All she knew was some man she could hardly see was in the room with her.
'Hey!' he shouted over the top of her screeches. 'Calm down. I'm not here to hurt you.'
She went silent; the sound of streaming water ceased too. She tried to look but it hurt and she had to squeeze her eyes tight. 'Who are you?' she rasped, her throat raw from her ripped shrieking.
'You've got this stuff in your eyes?'
Roxanna's panicked senses were slightly pacified by the calm question delivered in such a cool, authoritative voice. 'I think the spray mixed with the steam or something,' she wheezed. Not that it was the more pressing point right now.
'It's a wonder you didn't pass out. Here.' He took her upper arm in a firm grip and walked her two paces. 'Sit.' He pushed her down so she was perched on the edge of the bath.
She blinked rapidly, desperate to regain her wits. She heard the tap running in the sink, felt the breeze as the window was opened. But no matter how much she blinked, the stabbing sensation in her eyes didn't ease. All she could see through the fuzzy agony was a tall figure, too close. 'Who are you?'
'Gabe Hollingsworth. I saw the sign and walked right in,' he answered in that same calm voice, but now he sounded as if he was smiling. 'Sorry if I gave you a fright.'
No one 'walked right in'. The hedge saw to that. Most people thought this place was an extension of the park, the gardener's disused cottage or something. She came in through the garage but that was securely locked. So she wasn't sure she believed him. Had he climbed the fence to steal somethingor worse? But if he was a serial killer or sex offender, would he really be helping her now?
'Your eyes are really sore.' He truly seemed concerned. And, yes, amused.
'No kidding.' She couldn't keep them open they stung so bad. She gripped the edge of the bath with cold fingers and told the rest of herself to chill too. This Gabe guy didn't sound like a serial killer. Not that she knew what a serial killer was supposed to sound like, but she hoped that hint of humour was a good sign.
'We need to wash them out.'
We didn't need to do anything. 'I'm fine. It'll be right in a minute.'
'No, we need to bathe them. Don't worry, I'm a doctor.'
She half snorted. He might not be a serial killer, but she so doubted his ophthalmology qualifications.
'No, really, I am.' He read her sceptical mind. 'Put this over your eyes for a second.'
He pushed a wet and cold folded flannel to her face and she raised her hand to hold it in placehad to admit it soothed. The taps ran again.
'Lift up.' As if he didn't think she was capable of following instructions, a firm, warm hand cupped her cheek. He took the flannel away and then tilted her face from one side and then to the other as he carefully poured cool, clean water across each eye.
'Try to keep them open,' he murmured. 'It'll help.'
His voice was right by her ear, meaning his face was right by hers. Roxanna's heart thudded. She hadn't been this close to another person in the best part of a year and last time she'd been the one doing the doctoring. This was beyond different. This was
'Better?' he asked, another too-close murmur.
Goosebumps rippled across her skin as she suppressed a shiver, not that she was at all cold. In fact, she was all of a sudden burning. And all of a sudden she remembered she was only wearing a pair of ancient Lycra shorts and an almost supportive singlet. No bra. While water was trickling down her face and onto her chest. 'I'm getting wet.' She pulled back, wanting to cover up.
'No worse than you already are,' he said, a brisker tone this time.
'I can manage now, really.' She tilted her chin free of his grip. 'Thanks.'
The sting in her eyes truly had eased and she opened them widely to look at the man bent down before her. She blinked more rapidly than she had when they'd been chemical filled. Was she hallucinating her way through this? But no, she'd felt his touch, had heard his words and now, as her vision cleared, she saw him rise to full height.
The effect was something else. Bronzed, broad-shouldered, unbelievable. At least six feet with dark hair and even darker eyes that were gazing right at hers in an uncomfortably intense way. Peripherally she noted the blue jeans, red tee, skate shoes. The cool clothes merely served to emphasise the fit body, the tan, the muscles, the obvious strength that made her glad she was sitting because her knees had weakened from some pathetically female hormone-driven response. And given he had some foliage as decoration, it seemed he really had come through the hedge. But his eyes held her attention hostagejet-black, bottomless, unwavering eyes.
'Thanks,' she croaked, to break the suddenly dense silence. She swallowed. 'How can I help you anyway?'
He put the glass he'd used beside the sink, then took a few paces backwards, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets. 'I saw the "to let" notice.'
'It only went up this afternoon.' She stood, trying to get some kind of equality in the situation. Fat chance when he was tall and she wasn't. When he was dressed and she all but wasn't. When he was devastatingly good-looking and she definitely wasn't.
'You want to rent this place?' He didn't look like a prospective tenant. He looked like the kind of guy who owned things. Lots of things. Working in retail, even her little-old-ladies-giftstore kind of retail, meant she knew fashionable, what cost lots and what didn't. She knew the watch on his wrist cost lots, so did the shoes, while the tee shirt was one of those priced ten-times too high just because of the label. He was definitely someone who held the cards in his hands.
'I want to buy it,' he said bluntly.
Yeah, definitely the owning kind.
'It's not for sale,' she answered equally bluntly.
He held her gaze for a moment, then dropped to look at the puddle on the floor between them. 'Where's the owner?'
Roxie's spirit hardened. 'You're looking at her.'
His unfairly long lashes swept up and the deep, dark eyes studied her againsurprise had widened them.
'You don't believe me?' she asked.
'Well, you don't look ' He shook his head. 'Never mind.'
She knew what he'd almost said. He thought she looked too young to own a house? How old did he think she was? Clearly not much older than a schoolgirl. Did he think she was the teen cleaner? Great. But she was no kid, she was twenty-two and she'd cared for this house almost single-handedly for the last five years. Not that she was going to get all indignant and ram that down his throat, no matter how much his assumption annoyed her. And, yeah, underneath that, she smarted because this one-thousand-per-cent man-in-prime didn't see her as a capable adult, or a woman.