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'He was everything a woman might ever want in a man: tall, dark, ruthless good looks masking a dangerous will that had made him a millionaire before his twenty-fifth birthday. He sat beside her on the sofa, too close for comfort, and oozing the kind of blatant sexuality that weakened her defences. Power and determination had made him successful in business, but Lavender had no intention '
'I don't have to go if you don't want me to, Mum.'
Rachel had been lost in the intriguing love life of her latest heroine when Daisy appeared in her office doorway, but her daughter's words brought a crushing end to that imaginary world.
'Oh, Daisy!' Rachel exclaimed, getting up from her desk to give the girl a swift hug. 'When did I say I didn't want you to go?'
'You didn't,' said Daisy, recoiling from her mother's embrace with all the youthful independence of a thirteen-year-old. 'But I know what you think of Lauren. I don't like her much either. And the last time I visited them they were still living in England.'
Rachel sighed. She was always amazed at Daisy's capacity to understand her feelings. She wasn't always amenable. Like any teenager her age, she and her mother didn't always see eye to eye. But where her father was concerned, there was no contest.
Daisy had known that his invitation to spend at least two weeks of her summer holidays with him and his second wife at their home in Florida could prove controversial. For the first three years of his marriage to Lauren, Steve had only seen his daughter a handful of times, even though Rachel had agreed to share custody. But suddenly, since Steve's move to the company's headquarters in Miami last year, he'd been eagerto have her spend every holiday with him.
Rachel hadn't voiced any objections. She wanted Daisy to know her father. But there was still a twinge of apprehension at the thought that Daisy might find life in the United States far more exciting than living here in Westlea, a quiet English country town.
'Look, I don't mind,' she assured Daisy now, refusing to consider how she would feel if Daisy did decide to live with her father. Rachel's unexpected success in recent years as a romantic novelist had proved satisfying, but it certainly wouldn't compensate for the loss of her daughter as well as her husband.
'Well ' Daisy still looked doubtful, and Rachel wanted to hug her again. 'If you're sure?'
'You'll have a lovely time,' said Rachel, unable to resist tucking a strand of dark hair behind her daughter's ear. She paused. 'I just wish your father hadn't arranged for you to travel across the Atlantic with some strange man.'
Daisy laughed then. 'He's not a strange man, Mum,' she protested. 'I have met him before. When Daddy lived in London. He's his boss, actually. His family owns Mendez Macrosystems. Lauren really likes him. I know she thinks he's hot.'
Rachel's jaw dropped. 'Hot?'
'Yeah.' Daisy stared at her. 'Duh. As opposed to boring? Honestly, Mum,' she grimaced, 'if you're writing for a modern audience you ought to know these things.'
'I know.' Rachel was defensive. 'But what makes you think Lauren regards this man as hot?' She pulled a face. 'For heaven's sake, she and your father have only been married for four years.'
'And your point is?' Daisy was sardonic. 'Oh, Mum, get real, will you? Women like Lauren are always on the lookout for the next good thing.'
Rachel shook her head. 'I don't think we should be having this conversation, Daisy.'
'Well because Lauren is your father's wife.'
'You were Daddy's wife when she decided she wanted him,' pointed out Daisy shrewdly. 'Honestly, Mum, I don't know what you're worried about. If she and Dad get a divorce, you and he could get back together.'
Rachel didn't answer her, aware that that option was no longer as attractive as it might once have been. Experience had taught her that Steve Carlyle was not and had never been the man she thought she'd married. Lauren Johansen hadn't been the first female to attract Steve's attention during the nine years of their relationship. She'd just been the richest, and the most determined.
'Anyway, you'll get to meet him yourself before we go,' Daisy went on, reverting back to their earlier discussion. 'Mr Mendez, I mean. When he picks me up to take me to the airport.' She dimpled. 'Wait until I get back and tell Joanne. She'll be so hacked off. I can't wait.'
Rachel groaned. '"Hacked off"? Daisy, what kind of language is that?'
'Okay, green with envy, then, is that better?' Daisy pulled a face. 'Like I say, Mum, you really need to update your vocabulary.'
'Not with words like that,' said Rachel a little prudishly, and then, realising she wasn't going to get any more work done that morning, she switched off her computer and followed her daughter out the door. 'Anyway, it's lunchtime. Do you want an omelette or a salad?'
'Couldn't I have a ham-and-cheese toastie?' asked Daisy wheedlingly. Lately, since she'd got her period, she was inclined to put on weight rather too easily, and Rachel was trying to wean her onto a healthier diet.
'I suppose so.'
Rachel was pragmatic. Daisy was unlikely to stick to eggs and salads while she was on holiday, so what was one sandwich more or less? Which reminded her, they only had five days before Daisy left for Florida. A depressing thought.
Daisy was due to spend the following day with her grandparents. Steve's mother and father had never approved of their son's behaviour, and as Rachel's parents had died in a car accident when she'd only been a teenager herself, she and the elder Carlyles had always been very close. It meant Rachel would have a whole day to try and catch up with her deadline, which had definitely floundered since Daisy had accepted her father's invitation.
Consequently, she was irritated when the doorbell rang just after eleven o'clock that morning. She wasn't expecting any visitors. There were no edited manuscripts on their way back to her for approval, so it was unlikely to be the postman. And her neighbours knew better than to interrupt her before twelve o'clock.
Getting up, she went across to her office window and looked out. She was seriously considering not answering the door, but the sight of a powerful black SUV standing at her gate caused her to revise her opinion. Who on earth did she know who owned a vehicle like that?
And then a man stepped back from the shadow of the overhang and looked up directly at her window. A dark man, she saw, with hair cut so short it was barely more than stubble over his scalp. It was difficult to judge how tall he was from this angle, but Rachel got the impression of height and power, broad shoulders encased in an age-scuffed leather jacket.
She stepped behind the curtain automatically, not wanting him to think she was spying on him, but it was too late. He'd seen her. The second peal of the bell proved it, and with a rapidly beating heart she left her office and hurried downstairs.
As she unlocked the door, she wondered if she was being entirely wise. After all, she was alone here. She didn't know this man, and he certainly looked as if he was no stranger to trouble.
But that was her novelist's imagination taking over, she thought impatiently. He was stranger, yes, but he'd probably picked the wrong address. He might be looking for someone. Julie Corbett, for example. Her flirtatious neighbour two doors down definitely attracted a lot of male attention. The kind of male attention this man had in spades.
She opened the door a few inches, making sure to keep most of her body hidden. Her strappy vest and shorts were not for public consumption, not when she was sure her hips spread every time she sat down at her desk. 'Can I help you?'
The man—she'd been right, he was tall: easily six feet, with a lean, muscled build—grinned at her. His face was darkly tanned, almost swarthy, with well-defined cheekbones, dark, hooded eyes, and a nose that looked as if it might have been broken at some time. He wasn't handsome, as the men she wrote about were handsome, but she had to admit that tough, masculine features and a hard thin-lipped mouth were infinitely more sexy. He was also younger than she was, she decided. But that didn't prevent him from embodying the kind of power and authority that made her catch her breath.
'Rachel,' he said, shocking her still further by his casual use of her name. 'It is Rachel, isn't it?'
Rachel swallowed. 'Should I know you?' she asked faintly, sure that they'd never met before, and he pulled a wry face.
'No,' he said, his accent definitely not English. 'But I know your daughter. Daisy?'And when that aroused no immediate recognition, 'I'm Joe Mendez.'
Rachel felt weak. This surely couldn't be the man who owned Mendez Macrosystems—Steve's boss! It didn't seem possible. Weren't company executives supposed to wear three-piece suits, and ties and lace-up Oxfords? Not black leather jackets over tee shirts and jeans, and sockless loafers that had seen better days.
'I—Daisy's not here,' she said lamely, and Joe Mendez propped a hand against the wall beside the door and regarded her with the same look of tolerance her daughter sometimes employed.
'I didn't come to see Daisy,' he said, glancing behind him at the SUV. 'Is it okay leaving the car there?'
Which seemed to denote an expectation of being invited in. Rachel hesitated. 'It's a quiet road,' she said. Indeed, few unfamiliar vehicles entered the cul-de-sac. 'Um—what can I do for you, Mr Mendez?'
'Joe,' he corrected her evenly. He glanced pointedly over her shoulder. 'May I come in?'
'Oh ' Well, why not? she argued frustratedly. It wasn't as if he was a complete stranger, and she owed it to Daisy to be polite. She stepped back, remembering, as her bare feet protested the chill of the hall tiles, that she was hardly dressed for visitors, but it was too late to think of that now. 'Of course.'
Joe stepped into the hall, immediately filling it with his presence, and, leaving him to close the door, Rachel led the way into a rather formal sitting room. It was rarely used, and in spite of the mildness of the day it had a cool, impersonal feel. But she could hardly take him into the kitchen-cum-breakfast room where she and Daisy spent most of their time, could she?
He stood in the doorway, surveying the room, and Rachel gestured rather offhandedly towards the sofa. 'Please, sit down.'
He smiled, slightly uneven white teeth adding to his sensual appeal. Rachel knew she'd never encountered a man like him before and, remembering what Daisy had said, she could quite see why Lauren might think he was 'hot'.
She was relieved when he moved into the room and took a seat on the sofa, although he didn't appear to relax. He sat on the edge of the cushions, legs spread, hands hanging loosely between. And, when he looked up at her with a slightly whimsical expression, Rachel knew he was perfectly aware of the effect he was having on her.
Which made it easier, somehow. If she could just convince herself that she wasn't like all those other women who lusted after him—Lauren, for example—she could handle this.
'Coffee?' she asked brightly, overwhelmingly conscious of her exposed midriff and bare legs. 'I usually make myself a cup at this time of the morning.'
He was easy, and Rachel offered him a smile before quickly exiting the room. Had she time to dash upstairs and put on trousers and a shirt? she wondered as she hurried into the kitchen. But no. That would just be pandering to his conceit, and if you turned up unexpectedly you should be prepared to take people as you found them.
She'd filled the container before going up to work, so all she had to do was turn on the coffee maker. Within seconds the comforting suck and slurp of the filter filled the air and, with a careless shrug, she turned to take two mugs from the wall cupboard above the counter.
'Daisy told me you're a writer,' said Joe Mendez from behind her, and Rachel almost dropped the cups. Without any apparent sound, he'd left the sitting room and was now standing at the bar where she and Daisy usually ate their breakfast. He'd shed his leather jacket to reveal a tight-fitting body shirt and jeans that rode low on his lean hips, and Rachel couldn't help a certain twinge of resentment that he'd felt relaxed enough to make himself at home.
'Oh, only just,' she muttered at last, setting the mugs on the counter and turning to the fridge for milk.
'You write romantic novels, I understand,' he said, pursuing it. He grinned. 'Where do you get your inspiration?'
Well, not from men like you, thought Rachel, unsure how to answer him. 'I—er—I have a good imagination.'
'Not just that, surely?' He grinned again. 'Daisy's very proud of you.'
Rachel's smile was thin. 'Daisy's biased,' she said, wondering why she felt this need to deny her success. For heaven's sake, she was proud of her achievement. Two successful titles and her agent panting for her next manuscript—it was a would-be writer's dream.
He shrugged then, and, turning away from the bar, he walked to the windows that overlooked the garden at the back of the house. 'Nice view,' he commented, taking in the smooth stretch of lawn, the small summer-house that Steve's father had built when Daisy was a baby. 'Have you lived here long?'
Rachel's lips tightened. 'Didn't Steve tell you?'
He swung round then, hands resting low on his hips, dark eyes frankly curious. 'No,' he said flatly. 'Steve didn't tell me a lot about you. Should he have done? Am I treading on someone's toes here?'
Rachel immediately felt dreadful. 'No,' she said unhappily. 'Sorry. Don't take any notice of me. I was just being bitchy.'
Joe arched his dark brows. 'That still doesn't answer my question: what is Steve supposed to have told me?'
'Oh ' Rachel wished she'd never started this. 'It's just, well, this house used to belong to Steve's parents. They gave it to us when we got married, and and after the divorce ' She shrugged. 'They wanted us—Daisy and me—to stay here.'
'Ah.' He seemed to understand. 'They didn't approve of the divorce?'
'Something like that.' In actual fact, Steve's parents had been outraged when the son they'd always worshipped had proved to be less than godlike.
Joe looked thoughtful. 'And were you wondering if your ex-husband had sent me here?' he asked after a moment.
It had crossed her mind, but Rachel chose not to admit it. 'I'm just wondering why you came here, Mr Mendez,' she said steadily. Then, as the coffee finished filtering, 'Black or with milk?'
'Black,' he said, as she'd guessed he would. And call me Joe, please. Mr Mendez sounds like my father.'
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