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Carmel Rourke strained to hear the footsteps in the bedroom next door, crouched against the cold enamel of the bath and tried not to breathe. Now, if she could just stop her heartbeat sounding like the cannon-fire finale from the 1812 Overture, she might be able to avoid spending Christmas in a prison cell.
How had she ended up hiding in The Ritz hotel bathroom of a complete stranger? And how had her life taken another sharp turn into the toilet without her seeing it coming?
This time, it was all Louisa's stupid fault.
Trust her so-called friend Louisa to come up with a hare-brained scheme that would get Louisa a promotion and probably a Pulitzer Prize, if they pulled it offand land Mel in jail if they didn't. Never listen to a woman who can eat like a trucker and still fit into a size six. People like that never paid for their crimes. Mel, on the other hand, only had to look at a chocolate bar and it went straight to her hips.
The footsteps from next door stopped. Mel sucked in another breath and held it. She heard the bedsprings give a muffled crunch and then the Ten O'Clock News blared out its signature tune. Blast, now she wouldn't be able to hear if the guy was coming in here or not. Time to start praying.
Please don't let him come in here. Please don't let him come in here.
Mel recited the mantra in her head as sweat trickled down between her breasts. Her cotton blouse and wool skirt were suffocating her. Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn't eaten anything since her lunchtime yoghurt. Fabulous, it would be just her luck to pass out from starvation. Good to know she'd be able to fit into a smaller-sized prison uniform.
She leaned her head backagainst the tiles, stared at the gleaming silver showerhead above her and tried to piece together how exactly she'd ended up in this predicament in the first placestaring starvation, humiliation and almost certain arrest in the face.
It had all begun at the book launch when Louisa had spotted 'the hunk'.
'I'm telling you, I bet you anything it's him,'Louisa whispered in Mel's ear, downing her third sandwich in a row.
'It's not him, Louisa,' Mel insisted as the bookstore manager at the head of the crowd continued to wax lyrical about the latest soon-to-be best-seller from the mysterious crime novelist known only as Devlin. 'I don't care what you've read in Vanity Fair. Devlin doesn't do publicity; he'd be nuts to turn up at his own book launches incognito.'
In the last five years, Devlin had become a worldwide publishing sensation. His sales, though, hadn't outstripped the furious press speculation about his hidden identity. Louisa was one of the many reporters clamouring to unmask him. But in Mel's humble editorial assistant's opinion, the book-launch idea was a wild one, even for Louisa.
They'd been there for nearly twenty minutes listening to the bookstore manager drone on about Devlin's 'punishing prose' and 'atmospheric allegories' while Louisa worked her way through the curly sandwiches on the refreshment tableand not one person had piqued even Louisa's vivid imagination.
Then 'the hunk' walked in. leaving.' Louisa dumped her sandwich plate on a books and grabbed Mel's arm. 'Let's follow him.' she could blink, Mel was being hauled down dodging pedestrians as Louisa tried to keep up with the mysterious stranger's long strides. Five minutes later they were both standing breathless outside the entrance to The Ritz.
'You see, I told you,' Mel said between pants. 'He's a tourist. Thank goodness he didn't spot us stalking him down the street.'
'Wait here. I've got an idea.'
Mel frowned as Louisa dashed into the hotel. It was cold, it was starting to rain, she'd left her coat at the bookstore, she was hungry and she wanted to go home.
Mel was still frowning when Louisa burst back through the doors five freezing minutes later, her eyes lit up like the Christmas decorations flanking the hotel's entrance.
'Mel, it's definitely, definitely him.' Louisa clasped her hands together in mock prayer, gazed up at the ornate stone pillars of The Ritz entrance plaza. 'Thank you, God.' She smiled at Mel. 'That silly old bag Dansworth cannot pass me over for promotion again when I land this story on her desk.'
Mel knew she shouldn't encourage it, but even her curiosity was piqued. 'What makes you think the guy's Devlin?'
'Colin works here as the bell manager.'
What? 'Who's Colin?'
'Colin, my second-but-last ex. You know, he always used to call you babe and make you grind your teeth.'
'Okay, so what did Colin have to say?'This should be good. Colin was a moron if Mel's memory served her correctly.
'The guy's registered under the name Dempsey. He's staying in the Royal Suite, one of the most expensive suites in the whole hotel. And Colin says one of the bell boys was crowing when the guy arrived a week ago because he had to deliver a pricey new laptop to his suite and got a twenty-pound tip for his trouble.'
'Okay.' Mel considered the information. 'So he's a rich, computer nerd tourist. So what?'
Louisa grinned, the light in her eyes undimmed. 'Mel.'Her fingers dug into Mel's arm. 'Colin has a passkey.'
'Don't be dense. The guy's gone into the restaurant to have dinner. Colin will let you into his suite. All you have to do is find out if he's really who he says he is.'
'What? Are you completely insane?' Mel resisted the urge to shout, but only just. 'That's completely illegal. And why should I do it? I'm a lowly editorial assistant. You're the reporter.'
'You write the book-review column,' Louisa said, missing the point entirely.
'Only because Dansworth doesn't think anyone bothers to read it,' Mel replied, grudgingly. She'd worked long and hard to get the opportunity to write the book reviews; it was the only thing she really enjoyed about her job at London Nights.
'It'll only take you a few minutes,' Louisa pleaded.
Mel shivered, suddenly feeling very uneasy. 'I still don't see why you can't do it?'
Louisa looked more sheepish than Bo Peep. 'I'm sort of going to be busy with Colin. He's not risking arrest for nothing, you know.'
Mel's jaw dropped. 'You're not seriously going to prostitute yourself for the sake of a story which probably isn't even a story?'
Louisa waved her hand impatiently. 'Colin happens to be a great kisser.' She reached into her bag and pulled out her press card. 'If anyone catches you 'she paused dramatically ' which they won'tyou can say you're me.' She thrust the card into Mel's hand. 'The picture's so faded now, no one will be able to tell you're not me. I'll take any flak, I promise.' Louisa pushed her glossy mane of blonde hair back from her face. 'Mel, you know the magazine needs a boost. We've been dropping circulation for months now. There have even been rumours we might fold.'
'I hadn't heard that.'Mel thought, shocked. She needed this job. The mortgage on her tiny, shoebox-sized flat in West London was enormous and it wasn't going to pay itself.
'Mel.'Louisa's tone became sombre, her eyes serious. 'If I'm prepared to make this sacrifice with Colin to save our colleagues from redundancy, you ought to be prepared to make one too.'
Mel listened to her stomach rumble above the blare of the telly next door.
How come Louisa's sacrifice involved being taken to paradise by Colin the 'great kisser' while hers involved crouching in a hotel bathtub half the night waiting to be carted off to jail?
Her life had become a complete mess. She gave a heavy sigh. And most of it was her own fault, not Louisa's.
Sure, Louisa had led her into this stupid situation, but why had she let herself be led? She should have told Louisa she wouldn't do it. That she couldn't spy on some guy she didn't even know. But she hadn't thought to say it until she was alone in his hotel suite, looking at a worn leather jacket draped over one of the sofas. Just as she'd realised there was no way she could snoop through the guy's stuff, she'd heard the click of his keycard in the door lock.
Mel rolled her shoulders, the cramped conditions in the bathtub making her ache in some very inventive places. She clutched her bag tighter, her palms damp.
How many more stupid mistakes was she going to make in her life?
The thought had a picture of Adam popping into her head.
Handsome, arrogant, deceitful Adam. His charming smile, his carefully toned body, the constant reminders that she ought to watch her own weight. Adam, who she'd thought was her friendbut who was really her biggest mistake to date. What a complete fool she'd been not to see what he was.
The pristine tones of the newsreader shut off. Mel swallowed. Oh, no. She'd been so busy thinking about Adam the Rat, she still hadn't come up with a decent plan.
Jack Devlin threw the TV remote onto the bed and paced over to the window. Drawing the thick velvet drapes, he looked down at night-time Piccadilly, two floors below. The festive lights hooked to the streetlights sparkled on the slick pavement. The rain had stopped, but the Christmas shoppers and night owls huddled at the bus stop across the street still looked cold and miserable.
Dragging a hand through his hair, Jack scowled. He knew just how they felt.
What the hell was the matter with him? It had been three months now and he still couldn't shake it. The boredom. The restlessness. The emptiness inside him.
He let the curtain fall back into place and walked over to the room's well-stocked mini-bar. He spotted the laptop he'd bought a week ago, still in its case. Ignoring it, he grabbed one of the fancy little bottles and splashed the pricey Scottish malt into a glass.
Of course, the whole 'mystery man' fiasco wasn't helping much. He was tired of living in hotel rooms, skulking about to keep ahead of the damn reporters. He didn't want to give the press conference his publishers and his agent were insisting on, but what choice did he have? He was sick of being hunted.
He gulped the liquor down in one shot, grimaced when it burned the back of his throat.
How ironic. When he'd been a kid, he'd always figured money and success would solve all his problems. Right at this moment, two of his books were in The New York Times bestseller list and his broker practically had an orgasm every time he spoke to the guy about his investments.
He owned property in Paris, New York and Bermuda. And yet he couldn't settle anywhere. He felt as if he were reaching for something that wasn't there.
Jack slapped the glass down on the mini-bar. Get over yourself, Devlin.
The empty feeling would pass, eventually. It always had before.
He needed to stop brooding. Getting out of the hotel would be a start. He could check out one of the local bars; what he needed was a change of scene. Staring at the hotel's silk-papered walls for the rest of the evening was not an option he'd been doing that for most of the past week and it hadn't helped a bit.
The stroll down the road to the bookshop earlier had been a start, he thought wryly. At least it had got his mind off his lack of inspiration for a little while.
He recalled the girl he'd spotted at the launch. She'd certainly been an intriguing diversion. She hadn't been conventionally beautiful, not like the blonde Amazon standing next to her, but there was something about her. He hadn't been able to stop looking at her. Her eyes had fixed on him too. They'd been a soft mossy green, he remembered clearly, bright and intelligent. The directness of her gaze had bothered him a little, but he'd still got a good look at her figure. The boxy blouse she'd worn hadn't really suited her, but he could tell she had some nice curves underneath. He'd broken eye contact first. The reckless urge to make a move on her surprising him. Hell, he'd been in a room full of reporters.
Jack rubbed his chin, felt the day-old stubble. He needed a shave and a shower. Maybe he'd get real lucky and the intriguing girl and her friend would be having a late-night drink in one of the bars around here. He started to whistle as he pulled his sweater and T-shirt over his head, threw them on the bed and pushed open the bathroom door.
* * *
Mel fisted her hands to stop them trembling and sank down further into the bath as the light flashed on. A dark shape crossed in front of the gauzy layers of the shower curtain.
He looked enormous.
But at least he was whistling. Maybe he wouldn't mind when he found a mad woman hiding in his bathroom? She swallowed and prayed her stomach wouldn't grumble. The fear and the hours she'd spent in confinement were making her head start to spin. Then the whistling stopped. Was that the hum of an electric shaver?
Mel tried to inch upright without putting her head too far lip of the bath. She needed to be ready to put her planas it wasinto action. The electric hum stopped and started again. Then came the deafening crackle and the thud of something hitting the floor. Mel felt jump into her throat and had to suppress the yelp when muscled forearm sprinkled with dark hair appeared her and grasped the shower control.
Two quick twists and a deluge of cold water shot out of the Mel squealed as the icy spray hit her full in the face.
'What the ?'
The shower curtain whipped back and towering over her was the hunkwithout a stitch on. A sprinkling of dark hair defined the contours of a hard-muscled chest and arrowed down to his groin. Mel's blood pressure shot up to boiling point as her eyes followed the arrow down completely of their own accord. Through the deluge of warming water, she saw something she knew she'd never forget as long as she lived. Her gaze rocketed back up to his face so fast it was a wonder she didn't get whiplash. Piercing blue eyes glared at her, accusingly. But he made no move to cover himself.
Mel pushed the dripping hair off her forehead, her hand shaking so hard she thought she might be having a stroke.
'What the hell are you doing in my bathroom?'
Mel tried to scramble up. She dropped her bag, slipping back as the shower spray continued to pummel her. 'Could you turn it off?' Her voice came out on a pathetic whimper.
He waited several beats, before reaching out and turning off the spray, his eyes glaring at her the whole time.
She stood up, slowly, keeping her eyes trained on his face as if her life depended on it. She would not look down. She would not. Her skin must be vermillion by now and she couldn't control the tremors raking her body. At last, he let go of the curtain, reached behind him and took one of the small towels from the rack. The quick glimpse of a tight male butt made Mel gasp.
He turned back sharply, wrapping the towel firmly around his waist and tucking it in.
Still, he didn't say anything, just pinned her with that forbidding look in his vivid blue eyes. Even with the added height of the bath beneath her, Mel realised he was still taller than her. He had to be at least six feet two or three.
His gaze dipped to her chest.
Mel glanced down at herself and gaped in horror. The water had made her blouse and bra transparent. Her puckered nipples were clearly visible through the sodden material. She clasped her arms across her chest, clung onto her shoulders, but couldn't control the trembling or the hot flush racing up her neck. Could this actually get any worse?
'You better get out,' he said, his voice ominously calm.
He stepped back, letting her climb out, and then turned to reach for another of the towels on the shelf opposite.
A flash of adrenaline surged through Mel. Stop being a ninny and get out of here.
She launched herself across the bathroom, her feet sliding on the wet tiles as she clutched the door handle and lurched into the bedroom.
She heard the pad of footsteps behind her and tried to speed up.
'Oh, no, you don't, honey.'
The words seemed to boom in her ear as strong arms wrapped around her from behind and hauled her back against a solid male chest. Her feet lifted off the floor. Frantic, she shoved her elbow back, heard a muffled grunt. But his grip on her only tightened, pressing her heaving breasts against warm, hard forearms. The spicy scent of his aftershave filled her nostrils.
'Stop struggling. I'm not going to hurt you. I want to know who you are and what the hell you're doing here.'
The buzzing in Mel's ears became deafening. Don't you dare faint, you idiot. As she registered the thought her skin flashed hot and then everything went black.