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She had to steel herself to place the call. Hard to believe she had once taken Ram on as easily as any tomboy took on her older brother's best friend, but a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then and these days Ram was a royal playboy.
While Mia had issues
Scars and issues, as well as a desire to race cars again that refused to be repressed.
Get real, Mia. At least, don't lie to yourself. This is a chance in a million to see Ram again.
She hadn't spoken to Ram for too long, anyway, Mia reflected as she waited for the call to connect. From what she'd read about him in the press she expected Ram to be as changed as she was. Ram had announced he would shortly be quitting his playboy life to serve his people in the independent state of Ramprakesh, but before that he was to enjoy one last indulgencea timed rally car race across Europe in his super-car.
As soon as the newsflash came on, saying Ram's co-driver had been taken ill, Mia knew it was her chance to step in. Ram had to find someone in order to complete the last leg of the rally, which would take place in the winding streets of Monte Carlothe same glittering locale where Mia had made a new life after an accident in a rally car had nearly blinded her.
She had believed she would never race again, and this was a chance in a million to compete at the highest level, but first there was a little hurdle to overcome: she had to convince Ram to take her on. To do that she would have to be as determined and as pushy as she had been as a child. There could be no allowances made for the years that had passedwhen and if he answered the phone she would have to launch straight in as if she were that same tomboy who had never flinched from baiting him.
Heat curled inside her as she remembered wicked eyes, and a man who had filled her early years with the hottest of fantasiesmade all the safer for knowing Ram would never look at her that way. But she had to put all that to one side now. Raking her dark, cropped hair, Mia fixed her gaze on the bold print headline that had fired this crazy idea in the first place. The Maharaja's Back in Town! screamed the headline. Ram, or the Maharaja, as Ram was more popularly known thanks to his heritage, his unbelievable good looks and his moneynot to mention his raw and dangerous sex appealwas still her brother's closest friend, and had been Mia's
Trying to force the lid down on that box proved impossible. Ram meant so much more to her than thatand was still as far out of her league as he always had been. The English edition of the Monte Carlo Times pulled no punches where celebrity was concerned and Ram Varindha needed no introduction, either to this playground for the rich and famous, or to the world. When a man was too good-looking or too rich, or he originated from an exotic land with which he shared an equally exotic reputationand Ram filled all these criteria admirablythe glamorous principality of Monte Carlo was only too eager to welcome him home.
Mia's heart cannoned into her throat as a familiar black velvet voice growled a suspicious greeting.
'Ram?' She played it coolauthoritative and cool. 'Ram, it's me.'
'Ram, it's Mia .'
More silence as Ram no doubt trawled the telephone directory in his mind, running down the list of Mias until he came to one who lived in Monte Carlo.
'Give me a clue.'
So there were a thousand Mias in his life.
'Don't pretend you don't know me.' Her voice might sound confident, but beads of sweat were breaking on her browthis was so much harder than she had imagined.
But not insurmountable.
Her life consisted of kicking down doors .
And licking wounds.
But she wouldn't think about those now, Mia determined, unconsciously adjusting the position of her jewelled eyepatch.
As I slipped under the anaesthetic I dreamed I was trying to stick an ice pick into Ram's cold, unfeeling heart, but his heart was a stone that bounced away from me, and when I woke up I was blind She'd been having that nightmare a lot since the accident, and this was her chance to break free from ita chance to put an end to the sense of desolation that had overwhelmed her when Ram had walked out of her life.
That had been years ago and she should be over it now. This was the best chance she was ever going to get to prove she wasn't over-faced by Ram, by life, by anythingand she wasn't going to waste it. 'Surely you remember me beating the heck out of you on your best stallion when you were careless enough to choose my parents to stable your horses with?'
Resultbut could he sound any less enthusiastic? 'That's the one,' Mia confirmed, keeping up the bright act.
In fairness, she had never been the girl to whom boys' eyes were drawn, so Ram would hardly be eager to see her again. When other girls were trading style tips she'd been happiest mucking out the stables or hot-wiring the tractor. No doubt when other boys had been reading the Beano, Ram had spent his formative years mugging up information in the pages of a heavily illustrated Kama Sutra, but whether this crazy scheme of hers was mad, sad or just plain crazy, she had no intention of putting the phone down now.
According to the article in that day's newspaperthe one beneath the stunning shot of a tall, dark and unreasonably handsome hunk of a man with thick black hair and sharp black stubbleRam had no intention of giving up on the last leg of the Switch-Back rally.
'What do you want, Mia?'
'What do I want? It's you that's in trouble, Ram.' She wasn't exactly home free herself, Mia realised as her gazed fixed on the newspaper shot of Ram with his thumb casually hooked through the belt loop on his jeans, long, lean fingers pointing the way to his number one attraction.
'Roll back the reel, Mia. Who gave you my private number?'
'I got it from Tom, obviously'
She held back on the duh. One step at a time. She didn't want Ram slamming the phone down. On the other hand, she had to initiate the type of abrasive banter that had characterised their earlier relationship if she stood any chance at all of getting the best out of this conversation.
'What do you want, Mia?'
Her mind blanked.
'Did Tom ask you to call me?'
The five Ps sprang to mind: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. But she could never have prepared for this. Covering the mouthpiece with her hand, she waited for her heart to slow down. Tom and Ram were as close as brothers, but Ram owed her no loyaltythey hadn't been in touch for years. No wonder he was suspicious. 'Today's newspaper?' she said, regrouping fast. 'The article on the front page says you need help'
'My co-driver's sickwait a minute,' he said suspiciously. 'You're not suggesting'
'I could help you'
'You?' Ram exclaimed as if the world and everyone in it had gone mad.
'Why not me? I've got the right background.' Having won the junior section of several international rallies before the accident put her out of the game should put her in with a chance.
Ram wasn't exactly biting her hand off, but if she was serious about this she had to convince him. 'You can't be serious, Mia' 'I'm perfectly serious'
'Forget it, Mia. Is there anything else? I don't have all day to stand and yap'
'And neither do I, Knucklehead' 'What did you call me?'
Ice cubes filled the air. And were just as quickly melted by amusement. Ram didn't have to laugh or say anything for Mia to know that the balance had tipped, and that everything was going to be all right now. They had catapulted back to a different time when squaring up for a good-natured fight came as naturally to them as breathing. 'Of course, if you don't want my help'
'I don't just meet and greet in a beauty salon, you knowI am a medal-winning rally driver' 'Of Dinky cars, perhaps.'
She hid a smile. This was not the moment to turn the air blue. She was almost home and dryshe could feel it. And while she might have reinvented herself as a respectable meet-and-greet girl in Monte Carlo's most fashionable beauty salon,
Ram was an international playboy, so she had to raise her game and play it smart.
Ram, a playboy .
He'd always been heading that waydark, sexy, dangerous
'Are you still there?' he demanded as heat curled inside her, and far more insistently this time. 'I'm here .'
How did he live? Who was Ram these dayswas he royal or a rogue? Was he a professional rally driver, or a professional bad boy? Ram had dropped off the radar around the same time she had, so she had everything to find out about him.
Secrets. What would life be without them?
'Just tell me what you want, Mia.'
'What I want? It's your co-driver who's gone down with a stomach bugor maybe you scared the crap out of him with your appalling driving. Either way, I'm calling to let you know I'm here for you, Ramekin,' she finished sweetly, using the childhood name that had never failed to infuriate Ram.
'Like I need you,' he scoffed.
'Like, who else is going to volunteer at such short notice?' Mia countered smartly. 'Who else would want to spend the day cooped up in the world's smallest space with the world's biggest head? Who else won the junior section of the Davington rally that you know? And who's here now?'
'In Monte Carlo?'
'No, dummyNew Ashford, Massachusetts. Of, course, Monte Carlo. Do you seriously think I'd waste long-distance charges on you?' She was enjoying herself now. It was a long time since she had crossed swords with the invincible Ram, and that had been back in the day when she had worn pigtails and had wielded a lollipop like a deadly weapon.
'Okay, let's meet.'
Ram's unexpected concession snapped her back to attention. 'Where?' 'L'Hirondelle.'
As it didn't do to appear too keen, she groaned. 'The stuffiest hotel in the world? I thought you might have changed by now.'
'Changed how, exactly?' Irony coloured Ram's voice.
'Oh, you knowditched the pompous balloon in favour of a regular hot-air type favoured by most men'
'L'Hirondelle,' Ram repeated. 'Six o'clock. Think you can make it?'
So he remembered her time-keeping problems. 'Can't we meet at the club?' 'Which club, Mia?'
She hadn't missed the weariness in his voice. 'You don't know?' she said, faking incredulous. Not to know the hottest club in town was akin to pariah-dom in Monte Carlo. Not that she would have known which club was hot that season had it not been for the girls she shared an apartment with. They were the type of pretty girls who kept their collective ears to the ground and knew everything worth knowing. Mia was the type of plain girl who had learned to develop acute hearing over the years. Wild? Yes, she'd been wild when Ram had left England, but in a driving too fast, riding too hard kind of waythe clubbing scene had never held any interest for her. Party girl she was not, but hopefully she could wing it. 'The Columbus?' She named the most popular club in the principality with the type of pity in her voice those in the know reserved for those not in the knowpeople like her.
'You go there?'
Careless. As if Ram wouldn't know the hottest place in town. 'You've heard of it?'
'Enough to know it won't be open at six.'
Second careless mistake. Not even the bar would be open at that time, Mia realised, remembering too late what the girls had told her. Plus she had to face the embarrassing fact that Ram was only arranging to see her early on in the evening so he had the rest of the night left to do his thing. 'I don't finish work until sixcan't we make it later?' Giving her time for a major fashion overhaul courtesy of the girlsplus she'd need a wax, pluck, polish, fake-bake She'd settle for a miracle. She might not be Ram's idea of a good-looking woman, but there was such a thing as pride.
'Come over to the hotel straight from work, Mia,' Ram said, ignoring her suggestion. 'I'll still be working on the car, so I'll be ready for some fresh air by then.'
Nice to know she would be a welcome substitute for an oily rag.
But she could still rescue something from the situation. The smell of hairspray filled the air here at the salonand what little air was left to breathe was filled with the overwhelming floral scent-bomb of her employer's signature perfume. In his own way, like Ram, Monsieur Michel was a stranger to restraint. Parfait. Ram would love it here. Not. Throwing Ram off balance might be the one chance she had to persuade him to take her on as his co-driver. 'As I'm the one doing you the favour I think you should come here.'
And now she could only wait.
It was such a long wait Mia began to wonder if Ram had gone to sleep. 'Six o'clock at La Maison Rouge?' she prompted.
'La Maison Rouge?' he drawled as if she'd pulled him from reading a book. 'Isn't that the glitzy hairdressing salon on the main drag?'
'There's no need to sound quite so surprised.'
'I'm just surprised you're working there. What happened to your career in interior design?'
'Things.' Mia grimaced as she glanced into the mirror. Who would want to employ an interior designer with cheeks the texture of a rotting beam? Okay, slight exaggeration, but with her scars she wasn't going to risk it, whereas Monsieur Michel had dragged her in from the street saying she had the most fascinating 'look' he had ever seenand she'd been too stunned by Monsieur's lilac eyeshadow to argue.
'Are you any good at what you do?' Ram demanded, snapping Mia back to full attention.
'I welcome clients into the salon, Ram. I book appointments. I call the clients by nameand I smile. Not much room for error there.'
'As long as they don't let you loose with a pair of hairdress-ing scissors.'
He was remembering the time she had chopped off the tail of his prize horse when she'd been a twelve-year-old grooming enthusiast. 'See you here at six?' She held her breath.
Was that a smile in his voice? The line clicked and died before she could decide.
Well, she'd thrown her eyepatch into the ring, and now she just had to wait and see what fate had in store for herthough there was nothing to stop her helping fate along a little bit, Mia concluded as she placed a second call to girls with more fashion savvy than she would ever have.