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Having just dropped down into her seat after a mad dash to catch the train, flustered and hot, Natalie Carr delved into her voluminous red leather bag and unzipped an inside compartment to retrieve her ticket. The discovery that it was nowhere to be seen was akin to the jolting shock of tumbling down an entire flight of stairs. With her heartbeat hammering in her chest, she raised her head to proffer an apologetic smile to the guard.
'Sorry I know it's here somewhere :
But it wasn't. Desperately trying to recall her last-minute trip to the ladies' before running onto the platform to catch the train, she had a horrible feeling that after checking her seat number she'd left the ticket, in its official first-class sleeve, on the glass shelf beneath the mirror, when she'd paused to retouch her lipstick.
Feeling slightly queasy as a further search through her bag failed to yield it, she exhaled a frustrated sigh. 'I'm afraid it looks like I've lost my ticket. I stopped off at the ladies' just before boarding the train and I think I might have accidentally left it in there. If the train weren't already moving I'd go back and look for it.'
'I'm sorry, miss, but I'm afraid that unless you pay for another ticket you'll have to get off at the next stop. You'll also have to pay for the fare there.'
The officious tone used by the florid and grey-haired train guard conveyed unequivocally that he wouldn't be open to any pleas for understanding. Natalie wished that she'd had the presence of mind to bring some extra cash with her, but she hadn't. Her father had sent her the ticket out of the blue, along with an unsettling note that had practically begged her not to 'desert him' in his 'hour of need', and it had sent her into a spin. Consequently, she'd absent-mindedly grabbed a purse that contained only some loose change instead of the wallet that housed her credit card.
'But I can't get off at the next stop. It's very important that I get to London today. Could you take my name and address and let me send you the money for the ticket when I get back home?'
'I'm afraid it's company policy that'
'I'll pay for the lady's ticket. Was it a return?'
For the first time she noticed the only other passenger in the compartment. He was sitting in a seat at a table on the opposite side of the aisle. Even though she'd flown into a panic at losing her ticket, she couldn't believe she hadn't noticed him straight away. If the arresting scent of his expensive cologne didn't immediately distinguish him as a man of substantial means and impeccable good taste, the flawless dark grey pinstriped suit that looked as if it came straight out of an Armani showroom certainly did.
Even without those compelling assets, his appearance was striking. Along with blond hair that had a fetching kink in it, skin that was sun-kissed and golden, and light sapphire eyes that could surely corner the market in sizzling intensity, a dimple in his chin set a provocative seal on the man's undoubted sex appeal. Staring back into that sculpted visage was like having a private viewing of the most sublime portrait by one of the great masters.
A wave of heat that felt shockingly and disturbingly intimate made Natalie clench every muscle in her body. If she hadn't already been on her guard, she certainly was now. She didn't know this man from Adam, or his motive for offering to pay for her ticket, and she quickly reminded herself that the newspapers were full of stomach-churning stories about gullible women being duped by supposedly 'respectable' men.
'That's a very kind offer but I couldn't possibly accept it I don't even know you.'
In a cultured voice, with a trace of an accent she couldn't quite place, the stranger replied, 'Let me get the matter of a replacement ticket out of the way. Then I will introduce myself.'
'But I can't let you pay for my ticket I really can't.'
'You have already stated that it is very important you get to London today. Is it wise to refuse help when it is offered?'
There was no doubt she was in a fix and the handsome stranger knew it. But Natalie still resisted. 'Yes, I do need to get to London. But you don't know me and I don't know you.'
'You are wary of trusting me, perhaps?'
His somewhat amused smile made her feel even more gauche than she felt already.
'Do you want a ticket or not, madam?' The guard was understandably exasperated with her procrastination.
'I don't think I'
'The lady would most definitely like a ticket. Thank you,' the stranger immediately interjected.
Her protest had clearly landed on deaf ears. Not only did he have the chiselled good looks of a modern-day Adonis, the timbre of the man's voice was like burnished oaksmoky, compelling, and undeniably sexy. Natalie found her previous resolve to be careful dangerously weakening.
'Okay if you're sure?'
Her need to get to London was paramount, and it overrode her reservations. Besides, her instinct told her the man was being utterly genuine and didn't pose any kind of threat. She prayed it was a good instinct. Meanwhile the train guard was staring at them in obvious bewilderment, as though wondering why this handsome, well-heeled male passenger would insist on paying for a complete stranger's ticket. After all, with her bohemian clothing, casually dried long brown hair with now fading blonde highlights, and not much make-up to speak of, she knew she wasn't the kind of 'high-maintenance' woman who would attract a man as well-groomed and wealthy as the golden-haired male sitting opposite her. But if the smoky-coloured pencil she'd used to underline her big grey eyes with helped create the illusion that she was more attractive than she was, then at that moment Natalie was grateful for the ruse. For she knew she had no choice but to accept the man's kindness. It was vital that she met up with her dad.
She could hardly shake the memory of his distressed tone when she'd rung him to confirm that she'd received the train ticket and once again he'd reiterated his urgent need to see her. It was so unlike him to admit to a human need, and it suggested he was just as fallible and fragile as anyone elseshe had guessed all along that he was. Once, long ago, she had heard her mother angrily accuse him of being incapable of loving or needing anyone. His business and the drive to expand his bank account was the real love of his life, she'd cried, and Natalie didn't doubt his obsessive single-mindedness had been a huge factor in their break-up.
When, after their divorce, her mother made the decision to return to Hampshire, where she had spent much of her youth, Natalie, then sixteen, had elected to go with her. As much as she'd loved her dad, and known him to be charming and affable, Natalie had also known he was far too unreliable and unpredictable to share a home with. But in recent years, after visiting him as often as she could manage, she'd become convinced that in his heart he knew money was no substitute for not having someone he loved close by.
From time to time she'd seen loneliness and regret in his eyes at being separated from his family. His tendency to try to compensate for the pain it caused him by regularly entertaining the company of young attractive women was clearly not helping to make him any happier. Several of her visits over the past two years had confirmed that. He seemed disgruntled with everything even the phenomenally successful chain of small bijou hotels that had made him his fortune.
'I just need a single,' she told the arresting stranger, who didn't seem remotely perturbed that she'd taken so long to make up her mind about whether to accept his offer or not. 'And it doesn't have to be in first class. My dad sent me the ticket, but I'm quite happy to travel as I usually do in second.'
She couldn't disguise her awkwardness and embarrassment as she watched the man hand his credit card over to the guard. She felt even more awkward when he deliberately ignored her assertion and went ahead and requested a first-class ticket. Natalie hoped to God he believed her explanation about her dad sending her the ticket. After all, she was sure she didn't resemble a typical first-class passenger.
Trust her dad to unwittingly add to her discomfort by making such a needlessly overblown gesture. He always travelled first class himself, which was why he'd automatically paid for his daughter to do the same. Now she really wished he hadn't.
When the satisfied train guard had sorted out the necessary ticket, then wished them both an enjoyable journey, the impeccably dressed stranger handed it over to her and smiled. Natalie was very glad that the compartment was occupied by just the two of them right then, because if anyone else had witnessed the man's astonishing act of chivalry she would have wanted the floor to open up and swallow her.
Accepting the ticket as her face flooded with heat, she prayed her see-sawing emotions would very soon calm down. 'This is so kind of you thank you thank you so much.'
'It is my pleasure.'
'Will you write down your name and address for me so that I can send you what I owe you?' She was already rummaging in her voluminous red leather tote for a pen and notepad.
'We will have plenty of time for that. Why don't we sort it out when we get to London?'
Lost for words, and somewhat exhausted by her growing tension, Natalie lowered her bag onto the seat next to her by the window and exhaled a heavy sigh.
With a disarming smile, her companion suggested, 'Why don't we help ease any awkwardness between us by introducing ourselves?'
'All right, then. My name is Natalie.'
It was a mystery to her why she didn't give him her full name. The thought that it was because she was momentarily dazzled by his good looks hardly pleased her. What did she think she was playing at? How often had she groaned at a friend who seemed to lose every ounce of common sense whenever a fit, handsome man engaged her in conversation and became convinced he must think her the most beautiful girl in the world? Such embarrassing silliness was not for her. She'd rather stay single for the rest of her natural life than delude herself that she was something that she wasn't
'And I am Ludovic but my family and friends call me Ludo.'
She frowned, 'Ludovic? How unusual.'
'It's a family name.' Beneath his immaculate tailoring the fair-haired Adonis's broad shoulders lifted and fell as if the matter was of little concern. 'And Natalie? Is that a name you inherited?'
'No. Actually, it was the name of my mum's best friend at school. She sadly died when she was a teenager and my mum called me Natalie as a tribute to her.'
'That was a nice gesture. If you don't mind my saying, there's something about you that suggests you are not wholly English am I right?'
'I'm half-Greek. My mother was born and raised in Crete, although when she was seventeen she came to the UK to work.'
'What about your father?'
'He's English from London.'
The enigmatic Ludo raised an amused sandy-coloured eyebrow. 'So you have the heat of the Mediterranean in your blood, along with the icy temperatures of the Thames? How intriguing.'
'That's certainly a novel way of putting it.' Struggling hard not to display her pique at the comment, and wondering at the same time how she could convey without offending him that she really craved some quiet time to herself before reaching London, Natalie frowned.
'I see I have offended you,' her enigmatic fellow passenger murmured, low-voiced. 'Forgive me. That was definitely not my intention.'
'Not at all. I justI just have a lot of thinking to do before my meeting.'
'This meeting in London is work-related?'
Her lips briefly curved in a smile. 'I told you that my dad sent me the train ticket? Well, I'm going to meet him. I haven't seen him for about three months, and when we last spoke I sensed he was extremely worried about something I just hope it's not his health. He's already suffered one heart attack as it is.' She shivered at the memory.
'I'm sorry. Does he live in the city?'
'Yes he does.'
'But you live in Hampshire?'
'Yes in a small village called Stillwater with my mum. Do you know it?'
'Indeed I do. I have a house that's about five miles from there in a place called Winter Lake.'
'Oh!' Winter Lake was known to be one of the most exclusive little enclaves in Hampshire. The locals referred to it as 'Billionaire's Row'. Natalie's initial assessment that Ludovic was a man of means had been spot-on, and she didn't know why but it made her feel strangely uneasy.
Leaning forward a little, he rested his hand on the arm of his seat and she brief ly noticed the thick gold ring with an onyx setting he wore on his little finger. It might be some kind of family heirloom. But she was quickly distracted from the observation by his stunning sapphire gaze.
'I presume your parents must be divorced if you live with your mother?' he deduced.
'Yes, they are. In any case, tonight I'll be staying at my dad's place we have a lot of catching up to do.'
'You are close you and your father?'
The unexpected question took her aback. Staring into the fathomless, long-lashed blue eyes, for a long moment Natalie didn't know how to answer him. Or how much she might safely tell him.
'We definitely were when I was younger. After my parents divorced it was well, it was very difficult for a while. It's got much better in the last couple of years, though. Anyway, he's the only dad I have, and I do care about himwhich is why I'm anxious to get to London and find out what's been troubling him.'
'I can tell that you are a devoted and kind daughter. Your father is a very fortunate man indeed to have you worry about him.'
'I endeavour to be kind and devoted. Though, to be frank, there are times when it isn't easy. He can be rather unpredictable and not always easy to understand.' She couldn't help reddening at the confession. What on earth was she doing, admitting such a personal thing to a total stranger? To divert her anxiety she asked, 'Are you a father? I mean, do you have children?'
When she saw the wry quirk of his beautifully sculpted mouth she immediately regretted it, surmising that she'd transgressed some unspoken boundary.
'No. It is my view that children need a steady and stable environment, and right now my life is far too demanding and busy to provide that.'
'Presumably you'd have to be in a steady relationship too?'
Ludo's magnetically blue eyes flashed a little, as though he was amused, but Natalie guessed he was in no hurry to enlighten her as to his romantic status. Why should he be? After all, she was just some nondescript girl he had spontaneously assisted because she'd stupidly left her train ticket in the ladies' room before boarding the train. 'Indeed.'
His short reply was intriguingly enigmatic. Feeling suddenly awkward at the thought of engaging in further conversation, Natalie stifled a helpless yawn and immediately seized on it as the escape route she was subconsciously searching for.
'I think I'll close my eyes for a while, if you don't mind. I went out to dinner last night with a friend, to help celebrate her birthday, and didn't get in until late. The lack of sleep has suddenly caught up with me.'
'Go ahead. Try and get some rest. In any case I have some work to catch up on.' Ludo gestured towards the slim silver laptop that was open on the table in front of him. 'We will talk later.'
It sounded strangely like a promise.