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AS THE lift began its journey to the fourth floor, Laine Sinclair put down her bulky travel bag, flexing cramped fingers, and sagged back against the metal wall.
Adrenalin had got her this far, fuelled largely by anger and disappointment, but now, with sanctuary almost within reach, the savage energy was draining out of her, reminding her that she was jet-lagged and that her damaged ankle, in spite of its rudimentary bandaging, hurt like hell.
Home, she thought longingly, raking a hand through her light sun-streaked hair. Home, bath—and bed. Especially bed. Maybe she'd wait long enough to make herself a hot drink. Probably she wouldn't.
There'd be no one around at the flat. Jamie would be at work, and it wasn't one of the cleaner's days. So there'd be no cosseting, however much she might need it.
But there would be absolute peace and quiet, and the opportunity to sleep off some of her stresses and strains before the inquisition started.
She could hear it now. What are you doing back here? What happened to the boat charter business? And where's Andy?
At some point she would have to come up with the answers to all that, and more, but she'd worry about that when she had to. And that, she thought, was not yet.
And at least Jamie, with his own chequered career, was unlikely to say I told you so.
The lift stopped, and as the doors slid open she hefted her bag on to her shoulder, and stepped into the corridor, wincing as her ankle protested.
She fumbled in her travel belt for her latch key. She hadn't intended to take it with her. It was to have been left behind, like a symbol of her old life.
Not needed on voyage, she thought, her mouth twisting.And how ironic was that?
She let herself in, put down her bag, and stood, looking appraisingly around her at the big living room which, with the galley kitchen opposite her, formed the flat's neutral territory. Two en-suite bedrooms faced each other across the shared space, ruled by their own strict privacy laws. A system that worked, and generally worked well.
She noted, brows raised, that the flat seemed unusually tidy for once, with none of the empty wine bottles, crumpled newspapers and takeaway cartons that marked her brother's normal passage through life when she wasn't there to prevent it.
Maybe all that persistent nagging had paid off at last. And at least she wouldn't have to clear a path to get to her own immaculate bedroom.
But on that thought dawned two others. First—that the door to her room was standing open, when it should be closed. Secondly—that she could hear someone moving around inside.
Well, what do I know? she thought wearily. I haven't been here for over a month. Maybe Mrs Archer's changed her hours, and that's why the place is almost hygienic for once.
Her lips parted to call out—to establish her presence and reassure—but the words were never uttered. Instead, her bedroom door was flung wide, and a stark naked man walked out into the living room.
Laine shrieked. Closing her eyes, she took a too-hasty step backwards and stumbled against her abandoned bag, ricking her ankle again, and sending a shaft of pain up her leg which made her teeth ache in sympathy.
The interloper said something that combined blasphemy and obscenity in one gracefully drawled phrase, then vanished back into the room he'd just left.
Leaving Laine standing there as if she'd been turned to stone, a small frightened voice in her head whispering a beseeching No—oh, no…over and over again.
Because she knew that voice. Knew it as well as she knew her own, even though she'd never expected to hear it again.
The body she hadn't recognised from that brief glimpse, but then she'd never seen it less than partially clothed before.
However, she was in no doubt at all over the intruder's identity. In which case, she thought shakily, grabbing at her bag, she was on her way out of here.
She was halfway to the door when she heard his voice again, reaching her across the room.
'Elaine.'The hated full version of her name, pronounced with a kind of weary disdain. 'Of all the people in the world. What the hell are you doing here?'
'Daniel?' Somehow she made herself say it. Utter it aloud. 'Daniel—Flynn?'
She turned back slowly and carefully, dry-mouthed, noting with relief that at least he had a towel draped round his hips this time, as he stood in her bedroom doorway, one bare shoulder propped almost negligently against its frame.
He hadn't changed much in the past two years, she thought numbly. Not on the surface, anyway. The unruly dark hair, shining with damp, was still longer than convention demanded. The lean, incisive face with its high cheekbones and sculpted mouth, was as heart-stopping as ever. The tall body was even more powerful than she remembered, with the long endless legs, and the deep shadow of chest hair that arrowed down towards his flat stomach.
So, although the rudimentary decencies had been observed, there was still clearly nothing to be relieved about, she told herself as she began to shake inside. In fact, quite the contrary…
'I don't believe it.' She invested her tone with considered venom. 'My God, I hoped I'd seen the last of you.'
'And instead you saw a damned sight more than you bargained for.' He looked her up and down, the hazel eyes frankly insolent under their heavy fringe of lashes as he took in the grubby white denims, and crumpled dark blue top. 'That's life?'
'What are you doing here?' Laine lifted her chin haughtily, trying not to blush.
'Taking a shower.' His tanned face was inimical. 'Isn't it obvious?'
'And equally obvious that isn't what I meant.' She struggled to steady her voice. To try and regain some control of this disturbing and unwelcome situation. 'I'm asking what you're doing in this flat.'
'But I asked first,' he said. 'I understood you were establishing a new career being decorative in the Florida Keys.'
'I was working in a boat charter business down there, yes,' she said curtly. 'What's it to you?'
'I was simply wondering why you're stumbling around here instead of fixing frozen daiquiris on the poop deck.'
'I don't have to explain myself to you,' Laine said coldly. 'All you need to know is that I'm home to stay, and you can get dressed and the hell out of my flat before I have the law on you.'
His look was contemptuous. 'And I'm supposed to tremble and obey? Is that it? No chance, sweetness. Because, unless your dear brother's been lying to me, and frankly I don't think he'd dare, half this desirable residence is his, and that's the half I'm using.'
'You are using?' she said slowly. 'By what right?' 'I have a three-month lease,' he said. 'Properly drawn up and legally enforceable.'
Her heart was thudding unevenly against her ribcage. 'I gave no permission for this.'
'You weren't here,' he reminded her. 'And Jamie guaranteed that happy state of affairs would continue. He thought that you and your fellow boat charterer were all set to walk into the sunset together.'He inspected her bare left hand, his mouth twisting. 'Or did he get that wrong?'
Yes, she thought. Completely wrong. But at the time it had made more sense to let Jamie believe that…
Aloud, she said, 'A slight change of plan.' 'Ah,' he said. 'So another one bit the dust? I do hope you're not making a habit of it.' He waited for the sharp indrawn breath she could not control, then went on smoothly, 'However, it was on the strict understanding that I'd have the place to myself that I arranged to tenant the flat during your brother's absence in the United States.'
'Absence?' she repeated numbly. 'Since when?' 'Since three weeks.' He paused. 'It's a—temporary secondment.'
'Why didn't he let me know?' 'It all happened rather quickly.' The silky drawl was even more pronounced. 'He tried to contact you, but you seemed— unavailable. Phone calls and faxes to your registered office were left unanswered.' He shrugged, drawing her unwilling attention to his elegantly muscled shoulders, and rather more besides.
God, but that towel was skimpy, she thought, her throat tightening. And none too secure either.
She decided to avert her gaze. 'Always supposing this dubious agreement is valid,' she said through gritted teeth, 'that doesn't explain why you were coming out of my bedroom.'
'Except that it's now mine,' he said. 'For the duration.' His smile was harsh. 'I'm sleeping in your bed at last, darling. Now, there's a thought to savour.'
'Not,' she said, 'as far as I'm concerned.' 'There was a time,' he said softly, 'when the idea seemed briefly to hold a certain amount of appeal for you.'
'But that,' she said, 'was before I turned out to be "a cheat, a liar and a bitch". And I quote.'
His brows lifted. 'Indeed you do—and with remarkable accuracy. But moving into your room wasn't a deliberate choice prompted by malice. Or any nostalgia for what might have been,' he added, his mouth curling. 'Simply a question of expediency.'
'However, you must be able to understand,' she went on, as if he hadn't spoken, 'why I wouldn't wish to share a roof with you now any more than I did two years ago.'
'I can see it might be a problem,' he agreed. 'I'm glad you're prepared to be reasonable.' She was surprised, too, she thought, taking another, more even breath. 'Then perhaps you'd make immediate arrangements to remove yourself and your belongings to a more appropriate environment?'
His grin was total appreciation. 'Presumably somewhere like the lowest pit of hell? But you misunderstand me, sweetheart. Any problem that might exist is yours, not mine, because I'm going nowhere. What you decide, of course,' he added, 'is entirely your own business.'
She stared at him, lips parting in dismay. 'But you can't do this.' He shrugged again, casually adjusting the slipping towel. 'Try me.'
'But you don't really want to live here,' she said uncertainly. 'Why not? Apart from the last five minutes, it's been pleasant enough.'
'But such a come down.' She made herself drawl the words, as if she'd suddenly seen the humour in the situation. 'It's just a flat, after all. Not a glamorous penthouse pad for a millionaire publishing tycoon. No diamond encrusted taps or wall-to-wall women. Not your sort of place at all.'
She paused. 'Unless, of course, Wordwide International has gone into liquidation since you've been running it, and this is all you can afford these days.'
'Sorry to disappoint you,'he said, his face expressionless. 'But things are just fine in our part of the market. And I'm staying here because it's temporarily convenient for me to do so.'
He folded his arms across his chest. 'Face it, Laine, you chose to return without a word to anyone, least of all Jamie. He seemed to think you wouldn't be coming back at all—ever. And life doesn't stand still waiting for you. However, my deal is strictly with Jamie, so I have no power to prevent you using the other half of the flat, if you wish,' he added evenly.
'That's quite impossible.' She didn't look at him. 'And you know it.'
'Actually, no,' he said. 'I don't. Stay—go—it makes no difference to me. Unless you're deluding yourself that I still harbour some faint inclination for you. If so, think again.'
He paused grimly, watching the helpless colour warm her face. 'But be aware of this—you're not going to insult me out of occupation, and an appeal to my better nature won't work either.'
'I wasn't aware you had a better nature.' 'It's currently under severe pressure.'He paused. 'If you won't share, you leave. It's that simple, so make your mind up.'
'This is my home,' she said. 'I have nowhere else to go.' 'Then do what I did,'he said. 'Call in a favour.'He added with a touch of grimness, 'Although I suspect that might be difficult. You and your brother probably owe far more goodwill than you can ever repay.'
Laine drew a swift, sharp breath. 'That is a—loathsome thing to say.'
'But realistic.' He gave her a level look. 'So, if you've finally decided that here is better than a corner of Cardboard City, I suggest you stop arguing and start getting organised, because it could be a lengthy business.
'And if you want to eat, you'll also have to shop, because I'm not funding your food. We'll discuss sharing the other bills later.'
He turned to go. 'And don't ask for your room back,' he added. 'As a refusal often offends.'
'I wouldn't dream of it,' Laine said between her teeth. 'After all, in a few weeks you'll be gone, and until that happy day I'll camp in Jamie's room.'
His grin was sardonic. 'Prior to having this place fumigated and the bed ritually burned, no doubt.'
'My own thoughts precisely,' she threw after him as the door closed.
For a moment she stood where she was, staring at the wooden panels. It's a nightmare, she told herself. That's all. And presently I'll wake up to find it's over, and then I can start putting my life back together again.
She was trembling so violently inside that all she wanted to do was let herself sink down on to the floor and stay there. But Daniel could re-emerge at any moment, and the last thing she wanted was to be found crouching on the stripped and polished floorboards at his feet like some small wounded animal.
She'd never thought she would see him again. Or not face to face like this, anyway. Had told herself that he was out of her life for always. Deliberately put herself at such a distance that she would be spared the pain of even an accidental glimpse of him. Promised herself that, gradually, the memories of everything that had happened between them would begin to fade, and she would find some kind of peace.
Yet here he was again, and all the shame and the trauma of their shared past were still as vivid and as painful as ever.
I haven't forgotten a thing, she thought. And neither has he. She passed the tip of her tongue over her dry lips. Faint inclination. That was the phrase he'd used, and it had bitten into her consciousness like acid dripping on metal.
Because that was as much as it had ever been. All the helpless passion—the feverish longing—had been on her side alone.
But I can't let him think it still matters to me, she told herself. I dare not. I have to convince him that it's all over for me too. That I've grown up and moved on.
She waited until her heartbeat had steadied, and her breathing rate had calmed a little, then made her way slowly over to Jamie's room, favouring her damaged ankle as she went.
She turned the handle and made to push the door open, but it resisted stubbornly, as if there was some obstruction behind it. Laine put her shoulder to it, managing to create a gap just wide enough to give her access, and squeezed through it, wincing.
Then stopped dead, with a gasp of sheer dismay.