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THE moment Cory let Rufus off the lead she knew it was a big mistake. The powerful Labrador cross golden retriever shot across Hyde Park like a bat out of hell, mothers whisking toddlers up into their arms at his approach and elderly couples leaping out of his way with a nimbleness they probably thought had been lost to them years before. Even the group of young people who had been ambling towards them clad in strategically slashed jeans and with piercings in seemingly every nook and cranny lost their cool aplomb, scattering with shrieks and cries which—on the whole, Cory was thankful to note—were good-humoured.
For the first minute or so of following in the dog's wake Cory shouted apologies to all and sundry, then, when Rufus showed no signs of slowing down, she kept her breath for running.
Why hadn't she listened to her aunt? Cory silently berated herself as she panted after the dog, wasting valuable breath every twenty yards or so by screeching his name. But Rufus had been so docile and obliging on the walk down Bayswater Road from her aunt's house, sitting at all the right times without being told and keeping to heel like an old pro. And the deep brown eyes had been so imploring once they'd entered the park, the doggy expression of longing as he'd watched other canines chasing balls and playing making her feel like the wicked witch of the west.
"Keep him on the lead, Cory," Aunt Joan had warned as she'd seen them off at the door, her left leg encased in plaster due to a nasty fall a couple of weeks before. "I can just about trust him to come back now but I don't know how he would react with someone else. He's perfectly friendly, of course, and just adores children and other dogs, but the original owners kept him confined all the time as well as neglecting him in other ways, as you know. The poor darling."
"The poor darling' was not the phrase she'd choose to describe the dog right at this moment, Cory thought grimly. Her lungs felt as though they were going to burst and her throat and chest were on fire. There were various choice names which sprang to mind but poor and darling didn't feature in any of them.
Rufus having made a couple of lightning stops to sniff the certain part of other canines' anatomies which dogs found so interesting, Cory now found herself closer to him than at any time since the undignified chase had begun. Summoning all her strength, she bellowed, 'Rufus! Stay!" just as the animal prepared to take off from socialising with a French poodle. The golden head turned, brown eyes considering her with a faintly amazed expression as though he couldn't understand why she wasn't entering wholeheartedly into this wonderful game he'd organised. Seizing the opportunity, Cory growled, 'Come here. Heel, Rufus."
There was still a good fifty yards between them but she couldn't run any more, the stitch in her side excruciating. Whether it was her ferocious voice or the fact that she had slowed down to a walk, Cory didn't know, but the big dog suddenly seemed to realise all was not well. After one more moment of hesitation he took off again, but this time headed straight for her, determined to impress her by the speed with which he obeyed. It was doubtful he even noticed the tall, well-dressed figure about to cross his path. There was one endless moment when man and dog met and then five or six stone of sheer canine muscle sent the unfortunate figure hurtling into the air.
A very nice leather briefcase went one way, the suit jacket which had been slung over one shirt-clad arm another, and all Cory could do was to look in unmitigated horror. The man landed on his back with earth-shaking force and even Rufus realised he'd committed a faux pas. He was slinking obsequiously around the prostrate figure on the grass when Cory reached them, his ears flat to his face and his floppy jowls shaking as though he was about to burst into tears.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry." Cory went down on to her knees in a flurry of blue denim jeans, pink shirt and tumbled hair the colour of rich dark chocolate. "Are you all right?"
The man remained perfectly still for another moment and then drew air into his body with something of a tortured groan. It probably wasn't the moment to notice it was an exceptionally fit body—tall, lean and muscled with an aggressive masculinity that was rawly sexy—or that the jet-black hair topped a face that was out-and-out dynamite.
Cory swallowed. Pierce Brosnan, Orlando Bloom, Brad Pitt—eat your hearts out. She had to swallow again before she could say, "Have you broken anything?"
A pair of very blue eyes met hers. In spite of his prone position and the fact he'd had all the air knocked out of him—or maybe because of it—they were lethal, the one rapier sharp glance saying more than mere words could ever have done. When Cory went to help him as he sat up he motioned her hands away with a cutting action that was savage. It was unfortunate Rufus chose that moment to make his apology by means of a long slobbery lick across one chiselled cheekbone. The man froze for a second but still didn't say a word before he rose to his feet.
He was tall. Cory found herself looking up some distance as she too stood up. Very tall. And angry. Very, very angry.
"Is it yours?" 'I'm sorry." She was still frozen by the icy eyes and the way the set of his hard mouth gave the handsome face a harsh cast, and her brain wasn't working properly.
"That." He gestured furiously in Rufus's direction. "Is it—? Hell!" The original sentence was cut off. "What's he eating?"
Oh, no. Please, no. This couldn't be happening. She took the mobile phone out of Rufus's wet jaws but the damage was already done. Neither of them had noticed the dog snuffling in the discarded jacket. "Was...was it expensive?" she asked in a small voice whilst already knowing the answer. It was a state of the art, super dooper technological miracle of a phone. What else? But it hadn't been designed to withstand the power of those big jaws.
He ignored the outstretched hand with the chewed phone and took a deep breath, retrieving his briefcase and jacket and wincing slightly as he did so.
He was hurt. But then of course he would be. Meeting an express train in the middle of Hyde Park on a Saturday morning was something even Superman would have found a little hard to take. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I shouldn't have taken him off the lead."
Dark eyebrows climbed sardonically. "Really?" He wasn't being very gracious but she supposed she couldn't blame him. Cory took a deep breath. "I'll pay for any damage, of course," she said with a little upward jerk of her chin which wasn't lost on the man in front of her. "To the phone, your suit...anything," she finished lamely.
The eyebrows went a touch higher. "Am I supposed to say thank you here?" he drawled silkily.
What a thoroughly unpleasant individual. Cory found she could ignore the beauty of the sky-blue eyes quite well now. It wasn't so much what he said but the way that he said it which was so nasty. "Not at all," she said curtly, her whole body stiffening. "I'm merely making the point, that's all."
Rufus had seated himself at the man's side as though he had disowned her and was now looking the very picture of docility, his big head moving interestedly from one to the other as they had spoken. Cory found she could have throttled him. Preparing to clip the lead back on his collar, she said, "Rufus, come here," just as the flirtatious French poodle the dog had been eyeing up earlier sauntered past.
Her despairing, "Rufus, no!" was lost as he sprang up, blind and deaf to anything but his hormones.
He had only gone a few feet when one bitingly sharp, deep 'Sit!" brought him skidding into the required position seemingly in mid-air. 'Heel," followed with equal success, the dog performing a perfect Crufts manoeuvre to arrive in ingratiatingly quick time pressed close against the man's legs. As an authoritative male hand stretched out for the lead Cory handed it over. The next moment both lead and dog were returned to her.
"Thank you." It was said with extreme reluctance. "You can't suggest he does what he's told," the man said with irritating coolness. "It's all in the tone."
"You're an expert on dogs?" Cory responded before she could stop herself.
"No." In a leisurely exercise which stopped just short of being insulting, heavily lashed blue eyes wandered over her hot face. "I'm an expert on being obeyed."
Somehow she didn't doubt that. "Obedience classes would be good for you," he continued with insufferable condescension.
It didn't escape her notice that he had said good for her rather than the dog. The fact that he had several bits of grass in his perfectly groomed hair gave her savage satisfaction. "He's not mine," she said shortly. "My aunt recently acquired him from a dog sanctuary. They thought he'd been locked away in a shed from when he was a puppy and just thrown scraps now and again. She has been taking him to classes—" it was wonderful to be able to say it in all truth '—but she's broken her leg and so I offered to give him a walk this morning."
The sapphire gaze left her face and turned downwards to the golden dog. "Poor old boy," he said directly to Rufus who wagged his tail furiously.
And then his voice lost the brief softness and returned to its former coldness when he looked at her again and said, "For the sake of the dog and not least anyone in his path, keep him on the lead while your aunt is indisposed, would you?"
She bit her lip hard to prevent the spate of words which sprang to mind and counted to ten. "I'd worked that one out for myself."
It looked as though he was going to walk away and now Cory said quickly, "Your phone; I meant what I said about paying for a new one. Do you want my telephone number and address?"
He raised his brow. "Are you always so exceedingly generous in giving complete strangers your private details?"
He was deliberately needling her and she recognised it but still couldn't help being caught on the raw. "I'm not in charge of a dog which knocks people down every day," she returned smartly.
He muttered something she thought might be, "Thank heaven for small mercies," before saying, "Don't worry about the phone, Ms...?" 'James. Cory James." She looked at him steadily through velvet-brown eyes just a shade or two lighter than her hair. "And I insist on paying for a new one, Mr...?"
"My name is Nick Morgan and, I repeat, forget about the phone." He now took it from her, pocketing it nonchalantly.
"I can't do that." The obstinate streak which ran through her slender frame like a rod of steel came into play. "Rufus has ruined it and I wouldn't feel happy unless I make amends."
The square male jaw tightened. "It's not necessary."
"I feel it is." 'Are you always this—" he hesitated for the merest fraction of a second, and when he finished '—determined?" she felt sure that was not what he'd been about to say.
"Always." She didn't smile and neither did he. He folded his arms, surveying her for some moments without speaking. He was standing a couple of feet from her and in spite of herself her pulse was racing. It was his overwhelming masculinity that was sending the blood coursing, she told herself irritably, and she hated that he could affect her so. It wasn't attraction—it definitely, definitely wasn't attraction, she reiterated as though someone had challenged her on it—but more an awareness of the you Tarzan, me Jane type of definition of the sexes. What with his height, which must be at least six-three or four, and the hard look to his body, he was...well...
She couldn't find a word to describe what Nick Morgan was and so she gave up the struggle as he spoke again.
"A new phone will be provided the moment I walk into my offices," he said evenly, "but if you really feel the need for atonement?"
A thin smile curved across his mouth as though he found something amusing. The next moment Cory realised it was her reaction to his next words he had been anticipating with relish. "Then I need a partner for a social occasion tonight and my proposed date has had to fly out to New York at short notice." His eyes pierced her with laser brightness. "Care to oblige?"
Cory took a moment to compose herself. She had never been so taken aback in her life. Was he joking?
Her face must have reflected her thoughts because the smile widened. "I'm quite serious. Of course, if you have a previous engagement or a husband or boyfriend who might object..." He let his voice trail away but his gaze never left her.
She could lie. No, no she couldn't, she corrected herself in the next instant, because he'd know. Somehow she knew without question that he would be able to discern any fabrication a mile off. She looked at him squarely. "I'm not in a relationship," she said shortly. "What exactly is involved tonight?"
"Cocktails, dinner, dancing." It wasn't a proper explanation and they both knew it. Cory waited for more.
After a few seconds had stretched themselves into what was to Cory unbearable tension, he said, "I've recently taken over a particular company and this is a goodwill gesture by me for the senior management and their partners. Nothing heavy, you know? Merely a table at Templegate and us all getting to know each other on a social level."
Cory stared at him, her mind buzzing behind the steady brown of her eyes. A table at Templegate for the evening? That was going to cost him an arm and a leg. She had never had the opportunity to see inside the most famous nightclub in London herself, but it was where the young, rich and beautiful went to see and be seen. Trendy magazines were always brimming with pictures of this or that celebrity dancing the night away there and it was common knowledge that dinner equated to a second mortgage. She swallowed hard. "A party of how many?" she asked with what she considered commendable matter-of-factness.