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The physiotherapy room at Mayfair's exclusive Grizedale Clinic was quiet and peaceful, the only sound the muted background roar of London's traffic. A deep-pile carpet covered the floor, a vase of crimson roses scented the air and a black leather couch was spread with a spotless sheet ready for its next occupant.
At the open window muslin curtains lifted in the slight breeze, allowing light to enter but keeping the lingering sum-mer-in-the-city heat at bay.
Wearing a silky, charcoal-grey suit and an ivory blouse, her long, naturally blonde hair taken up in a coil, Madeleine was sitting at the desk, updating her previous patient's file, when there was a tap, and the door opened.
Neat in her blue uniform, dark curls secured in the nape of her neck by a gilt clip, Eve came in with some notes.
Eve Collins, along with her brother Noel, had been Madeleine's friend since their nursery-school days.
It had been Eve who had mentioned this post at the clinic. 'If you're interested, Maddy, the woman who usually fills it has taken maternity leave, which means it will only be temporary.
'But I promise you the surroundings are pleasant, and the money's good, so this might be just what you need to tide you over until you've built up a clientele of patients
'That is, if you don't mind working four evenings a week throughout the summer months.'
'I don't mind at all,' Madeleine had said gratefully, 'and I'd be glad of both the money and the experience.'
'I'll mention your name to Mrs Bond, who deals with personnel.'
On being offered the post, Madeleine had started work immediately. It meant she could no longer see her mother in the evenings, but she had reorganised her daytime routine to fit in visits to the nursing home between her private patients.
Smiling at her friend, Eve put the notes she was carrying on the desk and, her blue eyes gleaming with excitement, hurried into speech. 'Your last patient for tonight is a new one, a Rafe Lombard.'
Then dropping her voice to a whisper, 'And boy, is he gorgeous! A real hunk, with all the charm of a young Sasha Distel! Tall, dark and handsome may be an overworked phrase, but there's no other way to describe him.'
Madeleine sighed and raised her eyes to heaven. 'The last time you told me someone was gorgeous he turned out to have pimples and dandruff.'
'Scoff if you must, but this time you'll have to admit I'm not exaggerating. All the female staff are in a tizzy, married and single alike.
'When he smiled at Thelma, who you must admit is a bit of a man-hater, she went weak at the knees and dropped all the papers she was carrying.'
'Well, you'd better send this gorgeous hunk in,' Madeleine said drily. 'Otherwise I won't have time to take a look at him.'
A moment or so later the latch clicked, and, pushing aside the notes she had just scanned through, Madeleine glanced up.
The man who entered the room carried with him an air of power, of self-reliance and quiet authority.
As she looked at this ruggedly handsome, perfect stranger, everything stoppedher breathing, her heart, the blood in her veins.even the world ceased to spin on its axis.
It was as if she'd always known him. As if she had just been marking time, waiting for him to appear. Waiting for him to fill the void she had been only too aware of, even while she was married to Colin.
Rather than rushing into speech, as many of her patients did, he stood quite still, his forest-green eyes fixed on her face.
Dragging air into her lungs, she struggled to pull herself together. Though it seemed an eternity, it could only have been a few seconds before she succeeded in regaining at least some outward semblance of composure.
His effect on her had been pure and immediate and total, and she knew instinctively that she must stay cool and aloof, or be lost.
For perhaps the first time she understood fully why every tutor on the physiotherapy coursesapart from Colinhad found it necessary to warn their pupils not to allow themselves to get emotionally involved with any of their patients.
And, when it came to the crunch, how useless that warning was.
Drawing another deep, steadying breath, she rose to her feet and, daring her knees to tremble, advanced to meet him, holding out her hand. 'Mr Lombard, I'm Madeleine Knight '
He took her hand in a firm grip and smiled, he looked deep into her eyes and nearly stopped her heart for a second time.
Her breathing impeded, her throat desert dry, she began, 'I understand you've suffered a possible whiplash injury. When did it happen?'
'Earlier this evening.'
His voice, low-pitched and slightly husky, shivered along her nerve ends.
Those clear green eyes lingering on her face, he added, 'Since then I've had some discomfort. I don't think it's anything to worry about, but I was advised to see a physiotherapist just in case there was any muscle damage.'
In spite of all her efforts her voice wasn't quite steady as she asked, 'How did it happen?'
'I was taking my racing car round a private circuit when the steering went.' Drily, he added, 'Straw bales can seem remarkably solid at speed.'
He was still watching her and that steady appraisal threw her far more than any of her previous male patients' attempts at flir tation.
'If you could strip to the waist and get up on the couch so I can check it out, please?' She tried to sound cool and professional, in control.
While Madeleine kept her eyes fixed firmly on his notes he took off his jacket and shirt and draped them over a chair, before hitching himself up to sit on the couch.
Only when he was settled did she look up.
His back was straight and muscular, the line of his spine elegant, as the broad shoulders tapered to a lean waist and narrow hips. His clear, tanned skin carried the glow of health and gleamed like oiled silk, making her want to touch it.
Even the back of his well-shaped head was attractive and sexy, the short dark hair curling a little into the nape of his neck.
Taking a deep breath, she went over to him and, concentrating fiercely on her professional task, with firm but gentle hands began her exam ina tion.
Though he must have been well aware of his effect on women, he made no suggestive remarks, nor did he try to chat her up. Instead he sat quietly, obediently raising his arms and flexing his muscles when asked to.
As soon as she had finished the examination, she said briskly, 'Right, Mr Lombard ' and moved away to a safer distance.
As he swung his feet to the floor she confirmed, 'Though there's some obvious stiffness in the neck and shoulder muscles, luckily there's no evidence of any real damage. In a few days, if all goes well, you should be back to normal.'
'That's great.' He smiled at her, his smile a white slash across his tanned face.
She watched as his lean cheeks creased, and a fan of fine laughter lines appeared at the corners of those fascinating almond-shaped eyes. Eyes that tilted up at the outer corners. Eyes that would have made even the most ordinary face appear extraordinary. And his face was far from ordinary.
Dragging her gaze away with an effort, and trying to ignore the way his smile had sent her pulses racing madly, she went on, 'Rest is all it needs until after the weekend. Then I suggest you have a further check just to be on the safe side.'
Looking directly into the clear aquamarine eyes of this cool, fascinating woman, who seemed totally unaware of her own beauty, he asked, 'So when shall I see you again?'
His intent gaze and the question, phrased as it was, shook her rigid.
But seeing him again, even in a professional capacity, would be far too dangerous. It would be courting disaster.
The clinic's policy was that a strict protocol should be observed between staff and clients, and, faced with soaring costs at the nursing home, she couldn't afford to lose this job.
'Perhaps you'd like to come in again on Monday or Tuesday morning?'
He shook his head. 'Evening would suit me better.'
Biting her bottom lip, she made a pretence of studying her appointments before she suggested evenly, 'In that case, suppose you make it Monday evening at the same time?'
Mrs Deering, the plump, middle-aged and happily married part-timer who worked weekends and Monday evenings, could
hopefully help him without any threat to her peace of mind or her position.
'That suits me fine.'
'Then I'll say goodnight, Mr Lombard.'
'Au revoir, Miss Knight. Many thanks.' He strode to the door and made his way out.
Some element of vitality went with him, and she was left feeling, life goes that way.
With a hollow emptiness in the pit of her stomach she sank down at her desk and, with the image of his dark, attractive face filling her mind, started to update his notes.
The notes finished, she was sitting there gazing into space when the door opened and Eve came back in. 'I wondered if you were still here. Almost everyone else has gone.'
With nothing to look forward to but a solitary supper, there had been no incentive for Madeleine to hurry home.
'So what did you think of Rafe Lombard?'
'He was every bit as gorgeous as you said,' Madeleine answered as lightly as possible.
Eve looked gratified. 'And there's more.'
'According to Joanne, who always seems to know these things, he inherited Charn Industries from Christopher Charn, his godfather Which must make him a multimillionaire, and a prime catch.
'Though so far apparently he's managed to elude the hook and stay a bachelor. Which is a challenge in itself. A challenge I wouldn't mind taking up if I got half a chance. After all, a multimillionaire must be worth the risk of getting fired.
'Ah, well,' Eve sighed as she continued, 'I suppose I mustn't let myself dream. He's hardly likely to be interested in the likes of me. With those kinds of looks and that amount of charisma, Rafe Lombard must have women queuing up to throw themselves at his feet.'
No doubt Eve was right, Madeleine sighed, and pushed all thoughts of Rafe Lombard firmly to the back of her mind.
'Finished with these?' At the other girl's nod, Eve gathered up the notes and headed for the door. 'Well, I'm off. I've a date with Dave. See you Tuesday. Don't spend all weekend at the nursing home. Try to get out a bit.'
Since her mother had suffered severe head injuries in the gas explosion that had wrecked their rented house, she had spent most of her free time by the sick woman's bedside.
Sitting hour after hour with the corpse-like figure, talking or reading to her, not knowing how much, if anything, her mother understood, had taken a heavy toll on Madeleine.
As had the death of Madeleine's husband, Colin, in the same tragic accident. An accident she could only blame herself for.
As the weeks turned into months, finding she was no longer any fun, most of her friends had drifted away, and only Eve and Noel had stuck by her wholeheartedly.
Eve, in her usual cheerful, down-to-earth way, had provided an emotional crutch, while Noel had been there for her in a practical capacity.
First he had helped her find somewhere to live, then he had taken her out, chivvied her to eat and done his utmost to raise her spirits while she tried to pick up the pieces of her shat tered life.
As a shoulder to cry on, Noel was the first to admit that he was useless. But when she had needed someone to make her laugh, to forget for a short time at least that she needed a shoulder to cry on, he had been ideal.
When he'd gone to work abroad, troubleshooting for an oil company, she had missed him. Missed his unstinting support, his irreverent tongue, his spiky sense of humour and laid-back attitude.
Missed having a man in her life.
Since she had been on her own several men had tried to get on more than friendly terms with her. But, well aware that, in the circumstances, the odds were stacked against any new relationship suc ceed ing, she had steered clear.
After being alone so long it was time to move on, she knew, yet no one had attracted her enough to act as the catalyst to make her want to take the chance.
Until today. And that attraction, fierce though it was, was futile.
Becoming aware that time was slipping past, she closed the window and collected her shoulder-bag before letting herself out through a side-door and heading for the main gates.
On rainy days she caught the bus back to her Knightsbridge flat, but during the dry, settled spell of weather that had lasted for almost a week now, she had enjoyed walking home.
Tonight, however, having reached the imposing gates and turned west along Grizedale Street, she felt oddly weary and dispirited, in no mood for the thirty-minute walk.
She had just drawn level with a midnight-blue limousine that was parked by the kerb, when its rear door opened and a tall, dark-haired figure climbed out.
Dazzled by the low evening sun, she took a moment to realise that the man blocking her way was Rafe Lombard.
Surprise stopped her in her tracks, and as she shielded her eyes to look up at him he said easily, 'I thought if I hung around a while I might catch you. Have dinner with me?'
He was tall, dwarfing her with his height. If they were standing closer her head would rest on his broad chest.
Confused by the thought, she found herself stammering, 'N-no, thank you.'
'Perhaps it was stupid to spring it on you like this, but now I've admitted I'm an idiot,' he laughed, 'won't you reconsider and go out with me?'
With a flash of humour, she said, 'What? Go out with a self-confessed idiot?'
He gave her an appreciative grin. 'Think of the entertainment value.'
She shook her head. 'I can bear to give it up.' 'Surely not!' he mocked gently. 'Afraid so.'
'Go on. I promise I don't bite.'
Madeleine lowered her eyes. 'I'm sorry, but I can't.'
Putting his head on one side, he asked, 'Why not?'
His face was so full of charm that it took her breath away and turned her very bones to water.
Her voice sounding impeded, she said, 'It's against the clinic's policy for staff and clients to get familiar or meet on a social basis.'
He grimaced at the prim phrasing. 'If we do get familiar I promise not to breathe a word to a soul.'
'I'm not dressed for eating out.'
'You look absolutely fine to me.' He grinned.