Daniel Stephens has just discovered he is related to the famous Valentine Dynasty. He's not convinced that he fits into their world...until he meets beautiful Bella Lucia manager Stephanie Ellison and is captivated by her feisty yet vulnerable spirit. Stephanie has surrounded herself with barriers to protect her from a devastating past. Now she's slowly warming to Daniel's gentle charm. This really could be a Christmas to remember, but first Daniel must show Stephanie that she ...
Daniel Stephens has just discovered he is related to the famous Valentine Dynasty. He's not convinced that he fits into their world...until he meets beautiful Bella Lucia manager Stephanie Ellison and is captivated by her feisty yet vulnerable spirit.
Stephanie has surrounded herself with barriers to protect her from a devastating past. Now she's slowly warming to Daniel's gentle charm. This really could be a Christmas to remember, but first Daniel must show Stephanie that she can't hide behind her fears forever....
IN HIS wildest fantasies, if he were given to such things, Daniel Stephens had never expected to be here, doing this.
He shifted the heavy canvas duffel bag from his shoulder to the pavement in front of the beautiful, light-washed building, slicked back a damp clutch of hair and gazed up at the Knightsbridge Bella Lucia Restaurant.
London pulsed around him, the genteel hum of the élite, the roar of buses, the swirling, thick moisture of a damp October night, all both familiar and foreign after so many years away.
This was his birth family's restaurant. One of three, if he understood correctly. Fabulously successful. Exclusive. Expensive.
His nostrils flared. Outward façades never impressed him much. To his way of thinking most were lies, like his own childhood, covering a multitude of sins. But he had to admit, the Valentine family had style.
A chic woman stepped out of a taxicab beside him, tucked her designer bag beneath her arm, and sailed past without a glance to enter the glass double-doors of the restaurant. Soft jazz wafted out briefly, then was sucked back inside as the doors vacuumed shut.
Daniel had blood here. Blood that hadn't claimed him or his twin until now when it no longer hurt so much to have no father, no extended family, no one to care. Now his father wanted him. Or so he said. People like John Valentine generally hid ulterior motives. If Daniel waited around awhile, he'd find out what his father was really after.
The notion of claiming John Valentine as father still rankled as much as Mrs Valentine's demand for a DNA test to prove it. He'd refused her request during his brief visit a week and a half ago and, furious, hadreturned to the familiar call of Africa. But his twin brother Dominic had obliged, proving once and for all that the father who had abandoned them before birth was a rich and respected man.
Now that his troublesome temper had cooled and he'd thought the matter over, Daniel was back. Not that he wanted anything from the family he didn't know or trust. Not at all. But he did want something he couldn't get in Africa. Money. Lots and lots of money.
But first, he needed a place to live. His father--and he used the word loosely--had all but insisted he stay here in the flat above the Knightsbridge restaurant.
Light rain patted against his cheeks. His lips twitched an ironic smile. Water. The most precious commodity on earth. One so abundant here in his native country and so desperately scarce in his adopted one. He'd spent his entire career trying to rectify that problem, but project funds always ran short at the worst possible times. Now he was determined to use his skills and contacts in the UK to change all that. Life's inequities had always bothered him.
He lifted the heavy duffel bag back onto his shoulder. Might as well go up. Introduce himself to the American restaurant manager who had somehow been persuaded to share her lodging with him. He still wondered how John had worked that one out, but the old man had assured him that the woman was not only in agreement but was delighted with the arrangement. After all, the flat was large and roomy and there was some sort of problem in the restaurant that might make a woman alone uneasy. He hadn't added, though Daniel was no fool, that the flat also belonged to the Valentine family and that Miss Stephanie Ellison had no real choice in the matter.
If not for his determination to sink every shilling he had into the new business and ultimately into the Ethiopian water project, he might have felt badly about intruding upon the restaurant manager. He might have. But he didn't.
Obsessing. Stephanie Ellison was obsessing. And she had to get a handle on it fast. She glanced at the stylish pewter clock above the sofa. Five minutes.
The pressure against her temples intensified.
She paced from one side of her flat to the other, stopping to straighten every piece of framed art, two fresh flower arrangements and a pewter bowl of vanilla potpourri. All useless, obsessive gestures.
The living room, like every other room in the luxury Knightsbridge flat, was immaculate. And why not? She had cleaned, re-cleaned, and triple-cleaned today. Even the cans in the kitchen cupboards were organized into groups according to the alphabet.
And yet the throb in her temple grew louder and her gut knotted as if something was out of order.
Something was out of order. Seriously out of order. "But I can do this." She paced across the white-tiled floor and down the hall to her bedroom to assess her appear-ance--again. "Oh, why did John put me in this situation?"
Especially now, with the problems in the restaurant. Until the missing money was recovered, Stephanie needed to concentrate her attention there. After all, as manager she was ultimately responsible. But thanks to her employer, she had to deal with an even more dreaded scenario. An unwanted male flatmate.
A shudder rippled through her.
John Valentine had no way of knowing that thrusting his son upon her as a temporary roommate had the power to push her over the edge. John, like everyone else, knew nothing of the hidden shame that caused her to keep people at arm's length.
Oh, she was friendly enough. She'd learned from a master to put on a smile, keep her mouth shut, and play the game so that the world at large believed the masquerade instead of the truth.
That was why she'd never taken on a roommate. Brief visits by girlfriends such as Rebecca Valentine, yes. But a roommate? Never. Having someone invade her space for a few days was bad enough. A roommate was sheer terror.
Anyone who got too close might discover the truth. And she couldn't even face that herself.
Since hiring her a year ago as manager of the exclusive Knightsbridge restaurant, the Valentine family had given her carte blanche in remodeling and running the Bella Lucia. They'd even indulged her penchant for contemporary art décor. Her boss seldom interfered. Which was exactly why she hadn't been able to say no when he'd asked her to house the son who'd spent years doing charity work in Africa.
She chewed on that, allowing a seed of hope that Daniel Stephens was as noble as his work implied. From her boss's enthusiastic description, Daniel was one minor step below sainthood.
She laughed, though the sound was as humorless as the hammering in her head.
"A saint. Sure, he is. Like all men."
One other thing worried her. Actually, a lot of other things worried her. But in her flummoxed state, she'd failed to ask how long Daniel would be staying. With all her heart, she hoped not long. There was too much at stake to have him here indefinitely.
She swiveled around backwards, twisting her head to look at the slim, smooth line of her pale green dress. Everything was covered. Nothing showed. But she'd have to be extra careful with a flatmate lurking about. She hated that. Hated worrying that someone would discover the secret she kept hidden away beneath designer labels.
Someone tapped softly at the door.
Stephanie jumped, then gritted her teeth in frustration. She would not, could not, let anxiety take over. The willowy redhead staring back from the mirrored tub enclosure looked in complete control, unruffled, and well groomed. Good. As long as the outside appeared in control, let the inside rage.
She smoothed newly manicured hands down the soft, flowing skirt, realigned the toiletries on the counter for the third time, and went to greet her boss's son.
One look at the big, dark, wild-looking man filling up her foyer and Stephanie's heart slammed against her ribcage. The throbbing in her head intensified. Fight or flight kicked into high gear. Escape lay past him and down the elevator to the restaurant below. She had little choice but to stand and fight.
There had to be a mistake. This could not be Daniel. Mr Valentine had called him a boy, and, even though she had fully expected a grown man, she hadn't expected this... this...barbarian!
"My boy," John had said with an indulgent chuckle.
"He's a tad rough around the edges. Too much time abroad living without the amenities of the civilized world."
A tad rough around the edges? A tad? That understatement was a record even for the British.
This was no boy. This was a motorcycle gang in battered jeans, bomber jacket and rough-out boots. A pirate with piercing blue eyes, stubble darkening his jaw and unruly black hair in need of a cut. She had expected him at the worst to resemble his twin brother, Dominic, who worked for her as a part-time accountant. But this man was nothing like harmless, middle-aged Dominic. There wasn't a bald spot or an ounce of fat anywhere on this guy. And he was anything but harmless.
Surely there was a mistake. Another equally disturbing concern struck. If this was Daniel, and she prayed he wasn't, could John have sent him to spy on her, suspicious that she was responsible for the money missing from the restaurant accounts?
Fighting panic and forcing a bland expression she didn't feel, Stephanie took a small step back. The stranger was too close, too threatening.
"Are you Daniel?"
One corner of his mouth quirked. "And if I say no?"
If he said no? What kind of introduction was that? She blinked several times, then drew upon a glib tongue and a sharp mind to gloss over her real feelings. "Then I'll assume you're the plumber, at which rate you're five days late and fired."
He laughed, a quick flash of white teeth in a sun-burnished face. Oh, my.
"To save myself that indignity, I'll confess. I'm Daniel Stephens, your new flatmate."
She'd always enjoyed the British male voice with its soft burr in the back of the throat. But this man's voice was half purr, half gravel and all male, a sound that shimmied down her spine to the toes of her new heels.
Heaven help her. What had she agreed to? This could never work. Not even if she wanted it to. And she most decidedly did not. He was too rugged to be handsome and too blatantly male not to be noticed. And Stephanie did not notice men. Not anymore.
She couldn't meet his gaze but she couldn't take her eyes off him either.
Her silence must have gone on a bit too long because he said, "May I come in?"
Stephanie opened the door wider, determined to remain as composed as possible under the circumstance. "Of course. Please."
She couldn't let him know how much his size and strength and sheer manliness unnerved her. She could handle him. Hadn't she determined long ago that no man would ever get close enough to hurt her again? Hadn't she rid herself of that fear by moving far, far away from Colorado?
"I'm afraid you caught me by surprise." A lie, of course.
"The flat is..."
He poked his rather unkempt, and altogether too attractive head inside and finished her sentence. "Fine."
Her flat, like her person, was always ultra-clean and tidy. Outward appearances were everything. And having things out of place distressed her.
Stephanie turned and led the way to the living room. Her stomach jittered and her heart raced, but she was good at the pretense game.
Trouble was, it had been a while since she'd had to pretend quite this much. Or for quite this long. There was that troubling question again. How long would he be here?
Daniel's bulk filled up the large living room as if it were elevator-small. He glanced around with an unconcerned expression. The luxury of a flat that most could only dream of was apparently lost on him.
"Where should I stash my bedroll?" He swung the bag from his wide shoulder as if it contained nothing but packing peanuts. "Any place will do. A room, the floor, the couch. Makes no difference to me."
Well, it certainly made a difference to Stephanie. "I've put you in the back guest room." She forced a smile. "I assure you, it's more comfortable than the floor."
And as far away from her room as possible.
She led the way down the short hall toward the back of the flat, pointing out the other rooms along the way.
"This is the kitchen here. You're welcome to make use of it anytime." She felt like a Realtor.
"I wouldn't think you'd need much of a kitchen with the restaurant below."
"A person tires quickly of too much rich food."
"I can't imagine."
She paused to look at him. Bad decision. "Are you making fun of me?"
"Am I?" Blue eyes glittered back at her, insolent eyes that challenged. Stephanie glanced away.
Perhaps her statement had been rude. The man had spent a lot of years in places where food such as that served in the Bella Lucia was unheard of.
He was the boss's son. She didn't want to get off on the wrong foot with him. "I apologize. I'm really not a snob. But you'll have to understand, I'm accustomed to living on my own." She pushed the door open to the last bedroom. "You have your own bathroom through here."
"Nice," he said, though his tone indicated indifference as he gazed from the sage and toast décor to the queen-sized bed and then to the pristine bathroom beyond. He tossed the duffel bag into a corner next to a white occasional table. "I can see you aren't nearly as happy to have me here as John thought you'd be."
Stephanie wasn't certain what to say to that. She loved her job and couldn't chance upsetting her generous employer.
"I'm sure we'll get on fine." She hovered in the doorway, eager to have him settled, but equally eager to make her escape.