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'With a nail-biting finish like that, I think we can safely say that this tournament is wide-open and set to be one of the most exciting yet. This is Alana Cusack, reporting live from Croke Park. Back to you in the studio, Brian.'
Alana kept the smile pasted on her face until she could hear the chatter die away in her earpiece and then handed her microphone to her assistant, Aisling, with relief once she knew she was off air. She avoided looking to where she knew the man was still standing, his shoulder propped nonchalantly against the wall, hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, underneath a black overcoat with the collar turned up. He'd been talking to one of the French players, but now he was alone again.
He was watching her. And he'd been watching her all through the Six Nations match between Ireland and France. He'd unsettled her and he'd distracted her. And she didn't know why.
That was a lie; she knew exactly why. He was dark and brooding, and so gorgeous that when she'd first locked eyes with him, quite by accident, it had felt as though someone had just punched her in the stomach. There had been an instant tug of recognition and something very alien and disconcerting. Certainly something that no other man had ever made her feel.
Not even her husband.
The tug had been so strong that she'd felt herself smiling and raising a quizzical brow, but then she'd seen an unmistakably mocking glint in his dark eyes. Of course, she didn't know him; she'd never seen his long, hard-boned face before, had never seen that mouth, which even to look at from where she sat, had the most amazingly sensuous lips. Immediately she'd felt herself flushing with embarrassment at herreaction to him.
He had to be French, as he shared the quintessential good looks of so many of the crowd today, quite exotically different from the more pale-skinned home crowd of Irish supporters. And he'd been sitting in the seats reserved for VIP's, situated just below the press area. He looked like a VIP. She'd only had to look once to know that he effortlessly stood out from the rest of the crowd. But her gaze had been inexorably drawn to him again and again, and to her utter ongoing mortification their eyes had met more than once. When he'd stood intermittently with the crowd during a try or a conversion, he'd stood taller and broader than any of the men around himand in a crowd full of rugby supporters, that was something.
Yet was he waiting now because he thought that she'd been giving him some sort of come-on? Everything in Alana clammed up and rejected that thought. She would never be so blatant.
'Do you need a lift, Alana?' Aisling and the others had finished packing up, and Derek the cameraman was looking at her. Suddenly she felt very flustered. She didn't get flustered. She was often teased for appearing cool, calm and collected at all times.
'No,' she answered quickly, aware that the stranger had moved out of her peripheral vision. A sense of panic threatened herthat he might be right behind her, waiting for her. 'I have to go to a family dinner later, so I have my car here.'
'So no glitzy after-party to see the French celebrating for you, then?'
She mock-grimaced, secretly relieved that she had an excuse. 'I'll only have time to stop in to show my face on my way, just to keep Rory happy.'
He shrugged and was about to walk away after Aisling and the other assistant, with their small amount of gear, when he stopped and turned again, distracting Alana.
'Good reporting today, kid.'
Pleasure rushed through her. This was so important to her; Derek was practically a veteran of TV. She'd been slogging for a long time to get a modicum of respect. She smiled. 'Thanks, Derek. I really appreciate that.'
He winked at her and turned to walk away again. With the fizz of pleasure staying in her chest, she checked around for anything left behind and made to follow the others, before stopping and cursing as she remembered that her laptop and notebook were back in the press seats.
Derek's words were forgotten when that prickling awareness came back. She turned around with her heart beating hard, fully expecting to see the man again. She had a curiously insincere feeling of relief when he wasn't there. He'd obviously gone, bored with waiting around. Taking the lift back up to the upper level, she told herself to stop being ridiculous, that she'd merely imagined that they'd had some kind of silent communication
He thought he'd missed her when he'd gone to look at the pitch for a moment, and he didn't like the momentary sense of panic that thought had generated.
But she was still here.
Now Pascal Lévêque stood back with arms folded and surveyed the enticing sight in front of him. A very shapely bottom was raised in the air, encased in the tight confines of a pencil skirt. Its owner was currently bending over, hauling a bag out from under a seat. His eyes drifted down. Long, slim legs were momentarily bent and now straightened to their full lengthwhich was long, all the way from slim, neat ankles right up to gently flaring hips which tapered into a neat waist. He wondered if she was wearing stockings, and that thought had a forceful effect on the blood in his veins.
He wondered, too, then, what it was about her that had kept him looking, that had kept him here, when he should have long gone. What was it that had kept drawing his eye back again and again, uncharacteristically taking his attention away from the riveting match?
That was it. She was neat. Right from her starchy, buttoned-up stripey shirt complete with tie, down to her sensible court-shoes and shiny, straight hair neatly tucked behind her ears, a side parting to the left. It was tied back in a small ponytail, but he could well imagine that if let loose, it would fall ever so neatly into a straight shoulder-length bob, framing her face. And since when had he been into neat ? He was famously into seductive, sensual women, women who poured their beautiful, curvaceous bodies into clothes and dresses designed to fire the imagination and ignite the senses. Women who weren't afraid to entice and beguile, using all their powerful charms for his pleasure.
She was shrugging into a long, black overcoat now, hiding herself, and bizarrely, he felt all at once irritated, inflamed and perplexed. What the hell was he doing, practically slavering over some vacuous TV dolly bird? He knew that any second now she'd turn round, and he'd see that up close her face wasn't half as alluring as he'd imagined it to be from a distance: with a healthy glow, full, glossy lips and doe-shaped eyes under dark brows which contrasted with her strawberry-blonde hair.
No; she'd turn round and he'd see that she was caked in orange make-up. Her eyes would flare with recognition hadn't she already recognised him earlier, and given him those enticingly shy looks? And then he'd be caught. He was already trying to think up something to excuse his very out-of-character behaviour when she did turn round. He opened his mouth and suddenly his mind went blank.
Alana had no warning for what or who faced her. That gorgeous, brooding stranger was right in front of her. Just feet away. Looking at her. They were standing alone in an eighty-thousand-seat stadium, but to Alana in that moment it shrank to the four square feet surrounding them. And it was then that she had to acknowledge that the prickling awareness she'd been dismissing had just exploded into full-on shock. The blood seemed to thicken in her veins; her heart pounded again in recognition of some base appreciation of his very masculinity.
He stood with his head tilted back, hands in the pockets of his trousers. His coat emphasised his broad shoulders, the olive tone of his skin. But it was his eyes that she couldn't take her own shocked gaze from. They were wide, dark, intelligent and full of something so hot and brazenly sensual that she felt breathless.
Her hands gripped her notebooks close to her chest, and she was absurdly relieved that she was wearing a long coat, feeling very strangely that this man could somehow see underneath, as if with just a look he could make her clothes melt away. She shook her head, unaware of what she was doing, and to her intense relief, she found her voice.
'Excuse me, can I help you? Are you looking for someone?' Since when had her voice taken on the huskily seductive tones of a jazz singer? Even though they were alone, Alana felt no sense of fear. Her sense of fear came from an entirely different direction.
'You were looking at me.'
Pascal winced inwardly at the accusing tone of his voice and the baldness of his statement, but he was still reeling from coming face to face with her. His recent assumption that she would prove to be entirely unalluring was blasted to smithereens. She was all at once pale and glowing. Dewy. Cheeks flushed red from the cold breeze or something else? That thought had blood rushing southward with an unwelcome lack of control. Her eyes were a unique shade of light green. Her lips were full and soft, not covered in glossy gloop. He'd never seen anyone so naturally beguiling.
'Excuse me?' Alana welcomed the righteous indignation that flowed through her, and told herself it wasn't adrenaline. But since when had righteous indignation made her shake? She'd been right; he was obviously just a tourist looking for a little fun. He'd misconstrued her meaning when she'd smiled at him. Well, she wasn't on the market for that sort of thing.
'From what I recall you were doing a fair amount of looking yourself.' She hitched up her chin. 'I thought I recognised you, but I was wrong, so forgive me if I led you to believe that something more was on offer. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to get back to.'
The man smiled, revealing gleaming, strong white teeth, and Alana felt momentarily dizzy. 'I am well aware that you are working, after all, didn't I just see you interviewing Ireland's manager? I was making an observation, that's all. And you were looking at me.'
'No more than you were looking at me.' She desperately tried to claw back some semblance of control.
He rocked back on his heels and a different light came into his eyes. An altogether more dangerous light. And Alana could see that she was effectively trapped. The space between the seats was far too narrow for her to even attempt to push past him, and the only alternative would be to jump into the next aislefar too unladylike and desperate. And, in the skirt she was wearing, impossible.
Alana felt unbelievably threatened. She called up her best brisk manner and hitched her laptop-bag strap higher on her shoulder, hoping he'd take the hint. 'This conversation is getting us nowhere. Now, really, I have to get back to my office, and I'm sure you have somewhere far more exciting to be.'
After a long, intense moment, to her utter relief, he stepped back and indicated with his arm that she should precede him out of the row of seats that led into the press area. Alana gritted her teeth and walked past, but, even though she tried to arch her whole body away as she moved past him, she was aware of his height which had to be at least six foot four, the sheer breadth of him and an enticingly musky smell.
The smell of sex.
Oh God, what was wrong with her? Since when had she ever thought she could smell sex? And since when had she even been aware of what it smelt like? She felt weak in the pit of her stomach, but thankfully she was now past him and hurrying back up the main steps to the lift, which would bring her down to ground level and back to reality.
Her silent prayers weren't answered when she felt his presence beside her, yet he said nothing as the lift doors opened. When he stepped in with her, Alana punched the button, silently pleading for the journey down to be quick. It was excruciatingly intense, sharing the small confined space, and she practically bolted as soon as the lift juddered to a halt and the doors opened. As she walked towards the main gates at the back of the stand, Alana could see her car parked on the road outside. And then she heard his steps stop behind her.
Of course, he'd kept up with her effortlessly; she had the unsettling feeling that she was on a tight leash. He was like a predator indulging his prey, not moving in for the kill just yet. And knowing that, against all rational thought in her head, Alana stopped, too, and turned round. Her heart was still pounding from the close proximity in the lift, and she just realised then that she must have held her breath the whole way down.
He was looking at her with those intense eyes. And then he said, 'Actually, I do have somewhere more exciting to be. Maybe you'd care to join me?'
The full effect of his accent washed through her now; it was as if she'd blocked it out when she'd first heard him speak, having been too much to cope with along with everything else. He was absolutely devastating, and he was coming on to her. Alana couldn't believe it. She knew perfectly well she was nothing special; she looked like a million other girls. What on earth could this man want with her? Anyone could see he was in another league. Alarm bells rang, loud and insistently.
She shook her head and started backing away towards the gate and her car, but the physical pull to stay in this man's orbit was something she had to actively fight against. Simultaneously a sleek, dark Lexus pulled up beside them. Clearly his carhis chauffeur-driven carwhich had of course been parked here in the VIP parking area.
She was shaking her head. 'I'm sorry, Mr ?'