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"THE traffic ahead appears to be gridlocked, Mr Morrell. Do you want me to try and turn off?"
"No, I'll walk from here. See if you can pull over, Barton." Alex Morrell snapped his briefcase shut and punched the number of his office into his mobile phone. "Margaret, I'm caught in traffic. Can you check that the Danson notes are complete? I'll need them for court tomorrow. Ask the temp to type up anything that's outstanding."
There was a brief silence before his personal assistant Margaret Rivers murmured, "She's not actually here yet, but as soon as she arrives..."
"It's ten past nine," Alex snapped irritably, and then caught sight of the teeming London traffic and sighed. Maybe his new temporary assistant had a legitimate excuse, but it was not a promising start.
"Looks as though it might rain," the chauffeur, Barton, noted with a glance at the heavy October sky. But Alex was impatient. He hated inactivity, and the risk of getting caught in a shower was better than sitting in the car.
He had only been walking for a few minutes when the first spots of rain turned into a deluge and he was forced to dive into the doorway of a coffee shop, colliding with a young woman who had obviously had the same idea.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" She skidded to a halt in front of him and he flung out an arm to prevent her from falling. Hairpins scattered in all directions and her once neat chignon gave up and unravelled in a stream of amber silk around her face. "If only I'd obeyed Ten Tips on How to Survive Your First Day before I set out this morning," she said miserably, waving a bedraggled magazine under his nose. "Tip four is to remember an umbrella."
"What's tip one?" he enquired, unable to tear his gaze from her face, and enormous grey eyes blinked at him solemnly, dragging him under so that he felt, quite literally, as if he was drowning.
"Ensure that you arrive in plenty of time — and I'm horribly late. Do you know, the 8.05 was cancelled for no reason? Well, no reason that I could see," she added, and Alex felt his lips twitch.
She was beautiful — exquisitely so, he acknowledged, taken aback by his reaction to her. He had met many beautiful women in his life — indeed, he was a connoisseur of tall, lissom blondes — but there was something about this woman, the curve of her cheekbones and her full, soft mouth, that sent a jolt of unwarranted desire through his body. She was slender, and so petite that the top of her head was on a level with his chest. She looked vulnerable, but in his experience women were far tougher than they looked, and it was likely that the delicate woman staring up at him was no different.
"I'm sure your boss will understand that you have no power over London Transport," he murmured soothingly, but she shook her head again, so that her hair flashed like a bright halo round her face.
"I wouldn't bank on it. He has high expectations of his staff, and lateness is his pet hate — or so I've heard."
"Do you mean you haven't met him?" For a brief moment Alex considered the likelihood of coincidence and then dismissed it. His personal assistant had been responsible for selecting a temporary secretary from the agency, and Margaret had described the chosen candidate as eminently sensible.
The woman standing close to him was heartstoppingly lovely, but he doubted she had been employed for her reliability; this little one could only be described as ditzy. As if to labour the point she suddenly seemed to realise that she was standing in the arms of a complete stranger, and in her efforts to escape her hair tangled round his coat button so that she was trapped.
"Wait a minute." He stilled her wriggling and was in the process of unwinding her hair when they were joined in the doorway by a crowd of people trying to escape the hailstones that were now pelting down.
The woman was squashed up close against him and he was struck by the paleness of her skin, which was almost translucent, and her velvet-grey eyes fringed by gold-tipped lashes. There was something innately sensual about the fact that she wore no make-up apart from a hint of pale pink gloss that emphasised the fullness of her lips. Her hair smelled of lemons and rain, an earthy combination, and he fought a sudden urge to wind his fingers into the silky strands.
Could the morning get any worse? Jenna wondered. As if the public transport system hadn't been bad enough, she now faced arriving at the office on her first day looking like a drowned rat.
"I'm so sorry," she mumbled, as the throng of people squeezed further back into the doorway, pushing her further into the stranger's arms. He towered over her, and she craned her neck to look at his face, instantly hit by a wave of attraction that sent shock waves through her body. He was gorgeous, with black hair cropped close to his head, a lean, angular face, and a wide mouth that promised heaven. His eyes were dark, almost navy in colour beneath heavy black brows, and as she stared at him he smiled, and her heart flipped in her chest.
"No problem," he assured her, his voice rich and dark. "It's obviously a popular doorway."
"I must go," Jenna muttered distractedly, dragging her gaze from him to the storm outside. Hailstones were still thundering down, and she quailed at the thought of braving them, but at this rate she would be sacked from her new job before she had even arrived.
"You can't possibly go out in that," the man said equably, but she sensed the resolution beneath his tone and had the feeling that he would drag her physically back under the shelter should she attempt to leave.
It was all right for him, she thought, irritated by the way he continued to hold her arm, as if she was a small child in need of restraint. He didn't look like a man whose life depended on him arriving at work on time. With his exceptional height and stunning looks he had the appearance of someone who had stepped from the pages of a society magazine, but there was something about him, an air of quiet authority, that made a mockery of that idea. He must be a businessman of some sort, she surmised, and a successful one at that, for even her untutored eye could recognise the quality and superb cut of his overcoat. He was urbane, sophisticated, and from the gentle amusement in his eyes she realised that he was well aware of his affect on her.
Skin prickling with embarrassment, she dragged her eyes from his face, and as she stared down at the floor she spied the ladder in her tights.
"Someone up there really doesn't like me," she wailed despairingly, and his gaze dropped to her legs. "Tip five is to always carry a spare pair of tights." She was babbling like an idiot, she realised, transfixed by the way his mouth had curved into a wide smile. She was having the morning from hell — and falling into the arms of the sexiest man she had ever met was not helping!
His eyes travelled the length of her legs, skimmed her hips and settled on her breasts, and as she felt them swell and tighten she was grateful for the protection of her jacket.
"So tell me, why have you accepted a job when you don't like the sound of the boss, and haven't even met him?" he asked curiously.
"Money," Jenna informed him bluntly, "lots of it. I'd work for the devil if he paid the salary I've been offered."
Was that a look of disdain that crossed his face? If he knew the size of her mortgage he might be more understanding, she thought grimly. She doubted he had ever had to juggle his finances to such an extreme that it was a choice between paying the bills and eating. He was rich and pampered, she decided. His clothes, his general air, exuded extreme wealth, and standing beside him in her cheap suit she felt shabby and unsophisticated. With an impatient wriggle she shrugged out of his hold and peered past the crowd to see the rain still lashing the pavement.
"I can't stay here all day," she announced firmly. "Do you know if there are any shops nearby? I need to buy another pair of tights."
"Further down this road," the man informed her. "Why don't you phone your work and explain that you've been delayed?"
"I don't have the number," Jenna admitted. "It was in the memory of my phone, but somehow I erased it. Don't you dare laugh," she warned, noting the flash of amusement in his eyes as he tried to hide his smile.
She was just as he had guessed, he decided. A scatterbrained miniature Venus. But at that moment another blast of icy rain sent the crowd sheltering in the doorway surging inwards, and as she pressed up close against him he caught the drift of her perfume, a light, fresh fragrance that stirred his senses. Stirred rather more than his senses, he acknowledged.
This was ridiculous — to be so aroused at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. He had been too long without a lover, he decided grimly. At thirty-eight he was no longer at the mercy of his hormones. His days, or rather nights, with a variety of girlfriends were past, and he had certainly become more selective in his choice of lovers. But there was a huge difference between selective and celibate, and just lately he had definitely veered towards the latter. Work had become his all-consuming mistress; perhaps his body was simply reminding him that it had other needs. "Let me buy you a coffee," he offered as the shop door opened and the rich aroma of freshly ground beans assailed his senses. "You can phone Directory Enquiries for the number of your office. You're late now anyway," he added persuasively. "Another five minutes can't harm."
For a few seconds Jenna was tempted to throw off the weight of responsibility that had hung on her shoulders for the last three years. She stared at the stranger and her heart began a slow, thunderous beat in her chest. It wasn't just coffee he was offering, she acknowledged. The invitation was in his eyes, in the sensual curve of his mouth, and for an infinitesimal second she imagined his kiss, the feel of his lips on her neck, sliding lower to linger in the hollow between her breasts.
"I can't," she said thickly. "Thank you, but I can't. I'm sorry."
She didn't know how long she stood, trapped in a haze of awareness that she could see mirrored in his eyes, but suddenly she realised that the crowd in the doorway had moved. The rain had stopped, and in the street pale sunshine danced across the puddles.
"Well, it was nice to have met you," she said lamely as she stepped back from him, and found to her disgust that she was unable to drag her eyes from his face.
She didn't want to leave him, didn't want to walk away, knowing that she would never see him again, and she fought the urge to throw herself at him. It was only the thought of his embarrassment, let alone hers, which stopped her, and with another awkward smile she stepped into the street.
"I have to remember the way to the office block yet, and I have a terrible sense of direction."
Alex watched her go, consumed by a fierce compulsion to follow her, pull her into his arms and kiss her delectable mouth. What was the matter with him? he thought irritably. He hadn't felt this hungry for a woman in a long time — and he didn't like it. He liked his life to be well ordered and controlled. There was no place in his schedule for sex with a scatty redhead, and he ignored the dull ache in his gut with ruthless tenacity as he strode towards his office.
"I can't understand it," Margaret fretted when Alex entered his office to discover that the temporary secretary still hadn't shown up. "She seemed so keen to take the job, and really she was so..." Margaret paused, and then said emphatically, "Nice. I suppose I'd better get on to the agency," she continued, and Alex glanced at her downcast face and sighed.
Margaret had been very enthusiastic about the young woman she had hired, and he had been happy to leave the decision to her, trusting her judgement implicitly. It seemed as though, for once, Margaret had been proved wrong.
"I'll give it until ten o'clock and then phone them myself. You'd better go if you're going to make John's appointment on time."
"Perhaps something has happened — an accident, maybe," Margaret said worriedly, but then her face brightened. "You did say the traffic was particularly heavy this morning, I expect she's caught in a jam."
Personally, Alex did not share his personal assistant's optimism that the temp would turn up. He hated having to rely on an agency for staff, but his secretarial assistant had inconveniently given birth to her baby two months early, and thrown his usually well-ordered office into chaos. It was Margaret who had suffered most; he had a particularly heavy workload of cases and the two previous temporary secretaries sent by the agency had been absolutely useless. Rather than rely on the agency's choice again, he had instructed Margaret to interview the next candidates, and he knew she would be deeply disappointed if her choice proved to be a mistake.