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"-AND IN A round-up of local news, staff and patients at Greenacres, the specialist spinal injury unit here in Wellworth, had an unexpected visitor yesterday. Formula 1 champion Rafael Santini arrived by helicopter and spent several hours chatting to everyone at the unit before making a substantial donation. Greenacres manager, Jean Collins, said everyone was excited by the visit," the radio presenter chuckled. "I bet the ladies were excited, Santini's reputation off the track is as legendary as on it, if you know what I mean! Before you tell us what the weather has in store, Kate, what do you think of Rafe Santini?"
"Oh, a sex god, definitely, Brian. He'd brighten my day, which is more than can be said for the forecast-"
Eden stabbed her finger on the radio control button, cutting off the presenter's irritatingly bright voice, and stared impatiently at the queue of traffic. The roadworks had sprung up as if by magic overnight and she drummed her fingers on the wheel, refusing to admit that her tension had more to do with nerves than the fact that she was late. She shouldn't have had that second glass of wine last night, she conceded when she finally reached the hotel. No doubt it was the reason she had overslept and was responsible for the dull ache across her temples.
Her high heels clicked on the marble tiles of the foyer and a hasty glance in the mirror revealed that she looked cool and elegant in her cream trouser suit, her long blonde hair falling in a thick braid down her back. Her air of composure disguised the fact that her heart was racing. There was no good reason for the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she berated herself; it was ridiculous tofeel so nervous.
Security at the front desk was tight; she should have expected it, and her irritation grew as she scrabbled in her bag for her Press pass, barely able to contain her impatience as the security guard scrutinised it carefully before waving her through. It would be easier to break into Fort Knox, she decided grimly when she was stopped at the door to the conference hall by another security guard.
"You are late," the guard informed her unnecessarily, in his slow, carefully pronounced English. "The interview has already begun."
"I'll slip in quietly," Eden promised. "No one will notice." She prayed she was right; the last thing she wanted to do was draw attention to herself. If the morning had gone to plan she would already be safely ensconced at the back of the room, buried amidst the huddle of other journalists, unnoticed and anonymous.
The conference hall was packed and again she wondered what she had expected. Rafael Santini rarely gave interviews. He had a love-hate relationship with the media, whereby they loved to report his every move and he abhorred their intrusion into his private life. Since his brother Gianni's terrible accident three years ago, and the fevered media speculation that Rafe had been responsible for the crash, his feelings for the paparazzi had developed into an almost pathological hatred. Even now, in his exalted position as Formula 1 World Champion, his statements to the Press had been condensed into a few terse words and Eden wondered what form of persuasion Fabrizzio Santini had used to coerce his eldest son to face the media.
Eden kept her head lowered as she slunk into one of the last empty seats at the back of the hall, and it was only then, when she was well and truly hidden, that she dared to lift her eyes to the stage. She had been mentally preparing for this moment all morning. Hell, who was she kidding? She had been on edge for days, ever since she had known that she was going to see Rafe again. Even so, that first sight of him, the sheer impact of his stunningly handsome face, caused her to inhale sharply, her stomach churning, and she dropped her gaze, needing to reassemble her defences.
Rafael Santini looked bored. His hard features were schooled into a mask of polite interest, the chiselled perfection of his bone structure, the aquiline nose and heavy black brows from beneath which gleamed eyes the colour of polished jet, acting as a magnet for every woman in the room. But even from a distance Eden could read the signs of his impatience. It was there in the rigid set of his jaw, the way he twiddled a pen between his fingers, his smile revealing a flash of white teeth, but not reaching his eyes. As she watched him he stiffened, his body suddenly taut, his dark eyes hooded as he stared across the room in her direction. He couldn't possibly know she was there, Eden reassured herself as she sank lower in her seat. Rafe knew she was a journalist and that she came from Wellworth; it was where they had first met, after all. Doubtless he would also assume that she retained her links with the spinal-injury unit that he had just presented with a generous donation, but he would not expect her to be at the Press conference, and the air of tension that emanated from him was just a trick of her imagination.
Hadn't he always been aware of her the moment she entered a room? the voice in her head insidiously reminded her. It was a sixth sense they had shared, their consciousness of each other so acute that even in a crowded room they had known the exact moment the other was near. It was a memory long buried and she wished it hadn't surfaced now. She preferred to remember Rafe as a distant, unemotional lover who had provided great sex but little else. That was one of the reasons she had decided to end their relationship, if he hadn't beaten her to it and dumped her so publicly. It was surprising how much it hurt, even after all this time, and the sudden, stark memory of just how emotional their relationship had been was an unwelcome intrusion into her well-ordered life.
A woman at the front of the hall asked Rafe to speculate on his chances of winning Silverstone in two days' time and he relaxed slightly, his sexy smile causing a cramping pain in the pit of Eden's stomach.
"I don't speculate," he answered with the careless arrogance she remembered so well. "I intend to win. The car is performing well, and so am I," he murmured throatily, with a suggestive wink at the young journalist, who visibly wilted under the force of his charm. A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd at his answer. He wasn't known as the Italian Stallion for nothing-stories of his numerous affairs hit the headlines on a regular basis-and Eden gritted her teeth as she reached for her notebook.
A few basic details, information gleaned from questions she would leave the other journalists to ask. Cliff couldn't expect any more, and if he did he was going to be disappointed because no way was she going to try and snatch an exclusive interview with Rafe Santini. Once, she might have been overwhelmed by his seductive Latin charm, like the young journalist who was still looking flushed and starryeyed, but she was no longer the impressionable girl who had fallen in love with the world's number-one Lothario.
She knew that her old friend, Cliff Harley, the editor of the Wellworth Gazette, was hoping for an in-depth account of the life of Formula 1's ultimate hero.
"Come on, Eden, you're the golden girl, the hotshot reporter, renowned for her daring escapades in Africa,"he had cajoled. "If anyone can get a good story from the Santini racing team Press interview, it's you."
"Rafe Santini loathes the media," Eden argued, "and he's almost certainly not going to grant any exclusive interviews. I imagine he's only agreed to the Press conference to promote the fact that the Santini group have bought out the sports-car manufacturers in Oxford. It's a damage-limitation exercise after the scandals that have hit the Santini team over the last few years."
"Yeah, but you have the added bonus of knowing Rafe intimately,"Cliff teased with a salacious grin, and Eden blushed. Oh, yes, she had known Rafe intimately, had been so familiar with every inch of his body that even now, four years on, she could picture his broad, olive-skinned chest, the muscled hardness of his thighs and his powerful physique.
"My friendship with Rafe ended a long time ago," she told Cliff primly, ignoring his smirk at her description of Rafe as her friend. To be fair, Cliff was right; she had never been Rafael Santini's friend. His mistress, yes, his sexual playmate, whom he had picked up and cast aside whenever he felt like it and whom he had seemed to delight in flaunting before the public as his besotted lover, yes. But the intimacy they shared had never run any deeper than that.
"Well, I want a story with a bit of depth," Cliff told her. "I want details, I want to know what makes Santini tick, how he feels just before a race. I want a story that exposes the man behind the myth-"
"You want to know who he's sleeping with,"Eden muttered caustically, cutting Cliff off in mid-flow. Five years ago they'd started out together as junior reporters on the Gazette, but since then their lives had taken very different paths. Cliff had remained in Wellworth, married his childhood sweetheart and worked his way up to editor, while she had earned a reputation as a fearless and respected foreign correspondent sending back reports from the trouble-torn Ivory Coast. She'd spent the last three years living on her wits and she needed a break, time to recover.
She had promised her parents she would do nothing more energetic than sit in the garden of their cottage, but after a month of inactivity she was climbing the walls and was grateful for Cliff's offer of a job as a reporter for the Gazette. "I won't do sleaze," she had warned as she headed out of the office. "One of the lessons I learned from the year I spent with Rafe was what it feels like to have your face plastered across the tabloids and a load of rubbish written about you."
Frantically, she shut off the unpleasant memories and scribbled down a few more notes about Rafe's intention to continue competing in Formula 1 for the foreseeable future. There had been talk that Fabrizzio Santini was not in the best of health and certainly he had been devastated by the accident that had left his younger son, Gianni, paralysed. It was rumoured that Fabrizzio wanted to hand over the reins of the Santini Corporation to Rafael, but Eden hadn't taken them seriously. Rafe would never give up racing; it was in his blood, the need for speed and excitement, a degree of competitiveness that had put him at the head of his sport for a decade.
Rafe wasn't like other men. There was a wild element to him that saw him take risks that others would have regarded as madness, but which he always managed to pull off successfully. Many aspired to be like him, not least his younger brother, Gianni, but the rivalry between them had grown beyond the bounds of sibling competitiveness and had ultimately led to Gianni's terrible crash.
It was warm in the conference hall and the journalist sitting next to Eden was overweight and sweating profusely as he juggled with his notebook and a plastic beaker of coffee. He dropped his pen and as he leant forwards to retrieve it he sent a stream of scalding liquid into her lap.
"Oh, heck-sorry, love," he muttered as Eden yelped and half stood, frantically trying to blot the spreading stain with a tissue. "Yes, the young lady in the corner." Rafe's agent's voice sounded from the stage, followed by a long silence.
"He means you," another reporter hissed to Eden and she flushed and quickly sat down.
"I don't have a question," she muttered, and the reporter sighed impatiently.
"Well, think of one, for Christ's sake, before Santini gets fed up and ends the interview. He's not known for his patience."
Aware that her continuing silence was attracting curious glances, she took a deep breath. She had no option but to say something, she realised dismally, but her mind had gone blank and she asked the first question that came into her head. "Mr Santini, does your interest and financial support for the spinal unit in Wellworth stem from the injuries your brother received in his accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix?"
A murmur rustled through the crowd of journalists, more heads turned in her direction and Eden slid lower into her seat, praying that she had disguised her voice sufficiently that Rafe wouldn't recognise her. It was four years, she reminded herself; with any luck he would give a brief answer and move on.
"You've done it now," the reporter standing close to her groaned. "Didn't you hear Santini's agent say at the beginning of the Press call that Rafe won't tolerate any questions about his personal life and, in particular, anything about his brother?"
"I came in late,"Eden said, trying to defend herself. "I didn't know."
Up on the stage Rafe had leaned towards his companion and the two men were involved in a heated discussion before his agent stared in Eden's direction. "Mr Santini requests that you repeat the question, but first will you please stand and state your name?"
So much for remaining anonymous, Eden thought grimly as she eyed the side-exit and debated making an escape bid. It was too late; all eyes were on her and she had no choice but to slowly stand up. Even then she clung to the faint hope that he would not recognise her across the distance of the conference hall, but as she glanced towards the stage the room seemed to miraculously empty and there was no one but Rafe.
Dark eyes studied her with insolent appraisal, stripped her layer by layer and left her bare and exposed. She felt as though he had bored into her and captured her soul, and then suddenly his eyes released her from their hold and she shivered at the level of contempt in his gaze.