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Charlie opened her eyes and memories from the night before flashed through her mind with agonising clarity. The date had been a complete disaster.
She hadn't really minded the fact that the man she'd met had turned out to be five feet two instead of six feet two, as he had described himself on his profile, or even the fact that he had been nearer to fifty than thirty she wasn't ageist and she didn't think that looks were the most important things in life. However, his grey pony-tail had been a bit of a turn-off as had the fact that they had absolutely nothing in common except that they were both divorced.
After the first fifteen minutes the date had gone rapidly downhill. Maybe internet dating wasn't a good idea. She shouldn't have allowed her friends to talk her into it.
The alarm clock rang and she reached sleepily to switch it off. A few moments later Jack came running into the bedroom. 'Time to get up, Mummy,' he sang in his usual happy tone before bounding into the bed to give her a hug.
'Morning, darling.' She kissed the top of his dark silky hair.
'Nana let me have chocolate and watch TV with her when you went out last night.'
'Did she?' Charlie smiled. 'Nana spoils you to bits.'
If it had been a weekend they would have snuggled down for a little while and chatted. For a four-year-old Jack was a great conversationalist .probably better than her date last night, she thought with a smile. But this was Friday and there was no time for frivolity.
'Come on, then we'd better get you ready for school.'
The cottage felt cold, Charlie thought, and she put her hand on the radiator as they padded through to the bathroom. The central heating hadn't come on,which meant there was very little hot water.
Once she had dressed Jack she went to investigate the problem, but she couldn't fix it, so it was a job for the plumber again. She dreaded to think how much the repairs were going to cost.
After that there was just time for her to tie her long blonde hair back from her face, grab a piece of toast and flick through the morning post. Bills, bills and more bills pretty much the norm. The terraced cottage was small but it cost a fortune to maintain.
At the moment Charlie was a PA and worked as a temp for an agency owned by her friend Karen. Her current position working for a doctor of psychology, who was also a best-selling author, was her most profitable assignment to date. But she still found it hard to balance her finances. The truth was that running a house and being a single mum wasn't easy and at the end of the month there wasn't a lot left over for luxuries let alone boiler repairs!
But she would manage, she told herself firmly as they left the house. She always did.
It was a misty September morning and her old car coughed and spluttered before flaring into life. Then Jack pushed a CD into the player and they sang along with some classic love songs all the way through the rush-hour traffic.
Twenty minutes later, with Jack safely ensconced at school, she pulled back out into the traffic. She turned the volume up and hummed along to the CD as she headed for Oxford and her heart lifted. OK, so her date last night had been dreadful and there had been nothing but bills in the post, but she had the best son in the world and at the moment she was working for a very dishy boss. Just thinking about Marco Delmari gave her a little flip of anticipation.
When she had first started working for him she had instantly been attracted to his sizzling good looks. Then reluctantly her common sense had taken over and told her not to even think about it, because the job was too good to put at risk, and besides, she had priorities, she had Jack. Anyway, she realised she wasn't his type. Marco preferred stick-thin, model-perfect and incredibly glamorous women. She on the other hand was none of those things and, although she had nice hair and skin and large green eyes, unfortunately she had to wear spectacles most of the time at the office; otherwise she couldn't read the computer screen.
So not even by the flicker of an eyelash had she let him guess she thought he was gorgeous. Instead she had made herself indispensable and politely businesslike, with the result that he sang her praises, and told her how pleased he was that she had streamlined his office system and his diary. And in the last few months they had relaxed around each other and formed a repartee that was very enjoyable.
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Marco had to go into London to give a radio interview this morning and she wasn't sure if she'd see him before he left the office.
She took a few shortcuts down narrow, leafy lanes and arrived outside her boss's Georgian red-brick house on the outskirts of Oxford ten minutes early. His car was still parked in the courtyard and she felt a flash of exhilaration as she grabbed her briefcase and hurried up the steps to open his front door.
Her footsteps sank into the thick Persian carpets as she hurried across the wide hallway. The house was a designer's dream, decorated in restful shades of butter-gold and cream, and furnished with stylish antiques to exactly fit the period property. But today there was no time to admire her surroundings and she went straight up the stairs to the office.
'Morning, Marco,' she said breezily as she stepped through the door and tossed her bag down on her desk. 'Beautiful day, isn't it?'
He was standing with his back towards her, looking out of the window.
'Yes, beautiful.' He turned and looked over at her, and as usual she felt a frisson of awareness as she met his intensely sexy dark eyes.
OK, she was relaxed around him, but not enough to stop noticing how wildly attractive he was. Marco was Italian with broodingly intense looks. His thick dark hair just brushed the collar of his blue shirt and his face was autocratically strong and handsome. The first time she had seen him was on TV and she remembered being totally taken aback by his appearance. She hadn't expected a doctor of psychology to look like him. For a start he was too young. She had pictured someone older, someone staid. The reality was a man of thirty-seven, tall, dark and powerfully built, wearing chinos and an open-necked shirt. In all honesty he had the kind of looks that a movie star would die for. Not that Marco seemed concerned about his appearance.
As soon as Charlie had started to work for him she realised that the only thing that really mattered to Marco was his work.
He had girlfriends, of course all extremely beautiful and all crazy about him. In the short time she had worked for him she had watched them come and go, had observed how oblivious he was to their adoring looks. He really didn't have a clue how many hearts he had broken with his casual, laid-back indifference.
Marco smiled at her and a shiver of pleasure ran up her spine.
'So how was your date last night?'
His sudden question caught her off guard. She'd forgotten she'd told him about her date. He'd casually asked about her plans last night as she put her coat on to leave He'd only been making polite conversation and she could have said what she usually said'Nothing much'or she could have invented some parent meeting at Jack's school, but oh, no, she had opened her mouth and before she knew it the truth had popped out.
'It was OK,' she answered airily now, but couldn't quite meet his eye. She hated lying but the truth was far too embarrassing. 'Shouldn't you be getting ready to leave for the radio station?' Swiftly she changed the subject and glanced at her watch. Marco was due to give an interview at the BBC to promote his new book, an analytical study into why love shouldn't be the number-one reason for a partnership. 'If you don't set off soon you'll be latethe traffic going into London will be horrendous. It's Friday morning, remember.'
'Yes, I do realise that, Charlie. I'm waiting for Sarah; she wants to accompany me in and go over a few of the questions she thought they might ask.'
'Oh, I see.' Charlie switched on her computer. Sarah Heart was Marco's agent and publicist, an extremely pushy woman with an excess of confidence. Charlie found her grating. But she was good at her job and that was all that counted, she supposed.
'I don't know where she's got to but if she isn't here within the next five minutes I'll have to leave without her,' Marco muttered. He turned his back towards her again and looked out of the window, down towards the courtyard.
'Do you want me to phone her on her mobile?'
'I've already tried that. I just got her messaging service.'
'She's probably stuck in traffic somewhere.'
Charlie wondered if it was her imagination or if Marco really was unusually edgy this morning. Maybe he was just concerned about being late for this interview, although he certainly wouldn't be worried about it. Marco was very good at dealing with the media; he was always laid-back and extremely amusing and entertaining.
In fact he was much in demand on radio and TV these days and was fast becoming quite a celebrity. Academically he was brilliant and his books were always well-received, but Charlie suspected that his heightened profile and recent success was more to do with the fact that he was so captivating he even made the subject of psychology seem sexy.
There was a moment's silence as Charlie sat down at her desk and took her reading glasses out of her handbag.
'So Mr "Dreamboat" lived up to expectations, then?' Marco asked suddenly.
The question seemed outrageously personal and out of place in the scholarly surroundings of the book-lined office, a place where emotions were only ever discussed in the most analytical and diagnostic of terms.
'Well ' Charlie could feel her skin heating up with embarrassment as he turned and looked at her again. If it had been a mistake telling Marco about her date it had been an even bigger one telling him she'd met the man on the internet. As soon as the words were out she had imagined a hint of derision in his eyes that had made her go on to tell him that internet dating was very 'in', everyone was doing it, and the man she'd arranged to meet seemed very nice in fact, more than nicea bit of a dreamboat actually.
She should never have said that, she thought now with annoyance. She felt really foolish.
'Well?' Marco prompted her.
'He was OK '
'That's good.' He inclined his head. 'I was a bit concerned.'
'You were?' She looked over at him in surprise.
'Yes. Meeting up with a total stranger can be risky.'
'I suppose so.' She was filled with a warm feeling inside. It was a long time since anyone had shown concern about her welfare. 'But I was careful; we met in a crowded restaurant and I didn't give him any of my personal details.'
'Well, I'm glad it worked out for you.'
'Actually it was a bit of a disaster,' she admitted a little awkwardly. 'We had nothing in common.'
'Oh!' Marco looked at her with a raised eyebrow. 'Not a recipe for a second date, then?'
Charlie shook her head. 'It was a struggle getting through one date, never mind two. I couldn't wait to say goodbye to him outside the restaurant.'
Marco looked amused now. 'You didn't give him much of a chance, did you?'
'I didn't need to give him any longer,' Charlie said briskly.
'I suppose not, and it's better to find out you are not compatible sooner rather than later.'
She nodded. 'Trouble was, I knew we weren't compatible within the first fifteen minutes.'
'No, you knew that the chemistry wasn't instantly there,' he corrected her. 'That's something entirely different.'
'Not to me it's not! I know your professional views on this, Marco, and I agree with them to a certain extent. Maybe love can grow if you work at a relationship, but the chemistry has to be there to start with.'
'The chemistry can be a double-edged sword,' Marco said carefully. 'Sometimes it gets in the way of the truth; blinds you to the fact that you are not at all compatible.'
'It still needs to be there to begin with.'
'Of course it does I mean, you just know when you meet someone if it's going to be right don't you?'
Marco smiled. He had a nice smile, she thought; it seemed to warm his eyes to dark golden honey. 'No. You know that you'd enjoy going to bed with them,' he said softly. 'That is an entirely different thing.'
Charlie wondered how they had got on to that subject, and suddenly felt uncomfortably hot. She always tried to keep conversations with Marco inside a safety zone, friendly but businesslike and never too personal.
'But you are right,' he continued smoothly. 'Desire can be a very important part of a relationship. It's central to a good rapport to enjoy each other in bed.'
Charlie could feel herself getting even hotter on the inside now. Marco's Italian accent had a sexy depth to it that was mesmerising, as was the way he was looking at her with those molten dark eyes. Without warning she found herself wondering what it would be like to go to bed with him. The question was shocking and yet at the same time wildly exciting. He would probably make a fantastic lover.
'But there is no such thing as love at first sight, if that is what you are driving at,' Marco concluded laconically.
The words drew her back to reality from the strange feelings that had taken hold of her. 'Actually, I think there is,' Charlie said staunchly. 'My parents fell in love at first sight and they were married for thirty-three years.'
Marco shook his head. 'That was lust at first sight.' He noted the look of horror in her eyes and laughed. 'Sorry to disappoint you, Charlie, but your parents would have had to get practical and work at their marriage to make it last thirty-three years.'
'It was still love at first sight,' Charlie maintained stubbornly.
Marco shook his head. 'I take it you are a bit of a romantic.'
'No!' She didn't know why she hotly denied the charge, because she was a hopeless romantic. Maybe it had something to do with the sudden derisive tone of his voice.