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Nick glowered through the windscreen from inside the warmth and comfort of his heated car as the rain and sleet fell heavily outside, in no hurry to find a gap in the slowly moving vehicles that would allow him to edge back into the morning rush hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Having dropped his daughter Bekka off at school for the day, he was too immersed still in the memory of their last conversation before Bekka had climbed, sulking, out of the car.
'It's not fair, Daddy! Just because my birthday is on Christmas Day Why can't I have someone over on my birthday like the other girls do?'
'Because "everyone is busy with their own families on Christmas Day,"' Bekka parroteda reminder that this was the excuse Nick had been giving her for the past week.
'I'm taking you and three of your friends bowling and then out for a meal on Saturday instead'
'I want to invite someone over on my actual birthday,' Bekka had maintained stubbornly. 'It's just one little guest, Daddy. Just one,' she wheedled.
'And I already know that Mrs Morgan isn't busy on Christmas Day with her own family because she doesn't have one!' Bekka had announced triumphantly.
Why couldn't his eight-year-old daughter be totally consumed by self-interest, as most of her friends seemed to be? Nick now fumed inwardly. Why did it have to be his daughter who took in all the abandoned kittens, stray dogs, injured birdsand now widowed schoolteacherswhom Bekka knew happened to be spending Christmas alone?
He and Bekka did okay together, didn't they? Nick questioned with a frown.
Bekka had lived with her mother after Janet and Nick divorced three years ago, and Nick had been trying to be both mother and father to Bekka since Janet had died ten months ago. To be there for Bekka as much as he could when business interests already took up so much of his time. And he triedeven if he didn't always succeed!to spend the weekends doing things that Bekka wanted to do.
Surely he didn't have to give up the peace and quiet of his Christmas Day, too, in order to entertain an elderly, probably bewhiskered widow, so bereft of family and friends no one else was willing to invite her to join them for the holidays?
No, of course he didn't.
Nick's heart sank again as he remembered Bekka's last petulant shot. 'Mummy would have let me do it!' And then she'd slammed the car door and disappeared through the rain and sleet into the school building. Seven words. Seven little words guaranteed to guilt Nick into agreeing to whatever hare-brained scheme Bekka had come up with this time. Seven little words that meant Nick now possessed three thoroughly spoilt cats who thought they owned him, rather than the other way around, and an anti-social dog who more often than not tried to keep him out of the house rather than intruders. Plus a hamster one of Bekka's friends had had to get rid of because she was allergic, and, of all things, a rat that Bekka had literally saved from the jaws of one of the spoilt cats.
Add in a goat and some ducks and they could open up a damned petting zoo!
No, he had to draw the line somewhere, Nick decided firmly, and, whether Bekka liked it or not, inviting an elderly widowa complete stranger, to bootto join them next week on Christmas Day, was going to be it!
Having settled that situation to his satisfaction, Nick pressed his foot gently down on the accelerator to manoeuvre out into the traffic so that he actually reached his office some time this morning after all.
At that exact moment a huddled pedestrian chose to step off the pavement in front of his car!
The first indication Beth had that the car parked at the end of the school driveway was now actually moving came as she stepped off the pavement, hunched down in her duffle coat, the hood pulled low over her face to keep off the worst of the rain and sleet, and felt the slight bump of impact against her hip!
It wasn't a painful or hard bump, but it did succeed in knocking Beth off balance, causing her to stagger slightly as she tried to prevent herself from toppling over. A battle she totally lost as the heel of one of her boots slid on the icy surface of the tarmac.
She fell down on her bottomhard. Straight into one of the deep puddles that had formed at the side of the road.
Great. Not only was her outer clothing soaked through, but now her trousers and underwear were awash too!
'Are you okay?' demanded a gruffly concerned disembodied voice from amidst the blinding weather.
'Apart from my injured pride, you mean?' Beth muttered, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. 'Yes, I'm absolutely fine,' she assured the man ruefully.
'What the hell did you think you were doing, stepping off the pavement in front of me like that?' His shock at the near-disaster obviously assuaged, he obviously took this as an invitation to vent his own emotions. 'Damn it, woman, I could have killed you!' he added accusingly as his firm grasp on Beth's arm pulled her easily to her feet.
'I find that very hard to believe, when you were only driving at about five miles an hour!' Beth drawled dryly, halting her attempts to wring the worst of the rainwater from the hem of her coat as she finally looked up at the man from beneath the wet bangs of her dark auburn hair.
And then looked again.
As any woman with red blood in her veins would have done!
Even on a winter morning, with the sleet and rain continuing to fall down relentlessly, soaking her even more than she already was, and with her dignity in tatters.
Well, if she was going to be knocked down, Beth decided fatalistically, it might as well be by a man so gorgeous he should have one of those sexy calendars dedicated just to him! He was certainly ruggedly handsome enough to play the lead in one of those action movies Beth enjoyed so much.
He was probably aged in his mid-thirties, and at least a foot taller than Beth's diminutive five feet two, with slightly overlong dark hair curling damply about chiselled features of such hard masculine beauty they were mesmerizing: pale eyesblue or grey? Beth couldn't tella long and aristocratic nose, high cheekbones, and a sensual mouth above a sculptured jaw.
As for his hard and muscled body
She was soaked through. Had been hit by a car and had fallen down in the road, which was undoubtedly going to make her late for work. Yet still Beth couldn't help but admire the ruthless good looks of the driver of the car that had knocked her down!
What did that tell her?
That it was time her self-inflicted solitude came to an end, probably.
'Look, I've assured you I'm perfectly okay,' she said briskly, at the same time extracting her arm from that firm grasp. 'You, on the other hand, are getting very wet.' Beth frowned as she realised that the man wasn't even wearing an overcoat, and that his dark and expensively tailored business suit was now as wet as her own clothing. 'Please get back into your car'
'We'll both get in my car,' Nick decided impatiently, and as he once again took the woman's arm with the intention of pulling her towards his Mercedes.
A move she instantly resisted. 'I make it a rule never to get into the car of a man I don't know!'
Nick turned back to her, taking in her appearance at a glance; the hood of the blue duffle coat was pulled over dark auburn hair that lay in wet tangles about a pale face dominated by huge blue eyes and freckles and all her clothing was absolutely soaked throughincluding the sodden black boots on her feet.
'Will you just get inside?' he asked impatiently as the woman still hung back once he had wrenched the passenger door open. 'It may have escaped your notice but we're causing a traffic jam!' he added, with a pointed glance at the row of cars lining up behind his.
This man might be handsome as sin, Beth acknowledged as she reluctantly slid onto the passenger seat, butthat brief concern for having knocked her over asidehis manners certainly left a lot to be desired.
It was a deliciously warm and dry car, she realised within seconds of having the door slammed closed behind her. Warm, dry, and spaciously decadent, with pale blue leather upholstery and walnut veneer.
Although it seemed slightly less so once the darkly frowning driver had climbed in behind the wheel!
'There really is no needWhat are you doing?' Beth voiced her alarm as he restarted the engine.
'I'm getting us off the road and out of everyone else's way, of course!' An icy grey gaze raked over her scathingly before he turned the car round in the driveway and pulled over to the other side of the road, parking, and allowing the row of cars behind them to move out into the crawling traffic.
Of course. Obvious, once she thought about it. 7fshe'd thought about it. Which Beth hadn't.
She was surprised she could still function at all when she felt so numbed from walking to work in the icy rain and sleet for the past fifteen minutes!
Beth repressed a shiver as she pushed the wet hood of her coat back off her hair. 'I really am okay, you know. Wet and cold, obviously, and my dignity is certainly bruised. But otherwise I'm unharmed.'
'I doubt it's only your dignity that's bruised ' her reluctant rescuer drawled wryly.
Beth turned to give him a frown; was this mannow that he was assured of her well-beingactually laughing at her?
Nick could see exactly how wet and cold the woman beside him was now that the hood of her coat no longer hid her face; her teeth were chattering and her cheeks had taken on a slightly blue tinge. 'I'll drive you home so that you can take a hot shower and change into some dry clothes,' he offered briskly.
'That won't be necessary, thank you,' the woman refused primly. 'I'm going to be late for work as it is'
'Aren't we all?' Nick muttered, knowing there was no way that he was going to make his nine-thirty appointment now. 'But you can't possibly go into work like that'
'Of course I can,' she dismissed as she pulled the hood back over her haironly to give a grimace at its uncomfortable dampness. 'I have some dry things I can change into once I get into school.'
'You work at St James's ?' Nick eyed her sharply as he reassessed her appearance.
She was young, probably in her early to mid-twenties, and wore little or no make-up. Small gold studs in pierced earlobes. The clothes he could seeblue duffle coat, black trousers, black bootslooked serviceable rather than fashionable or designer label. Her gloveless hands were long and slender, the nails kept short, the fingers completely bare of rings.
Probably one of the catering staff. Or perhaps she helped out in the classroom, Nick decided. If it was the former she no doubt had a kitchen uniform she could change into while her own clothes were drying on a radiator somewhere.
'It's your call.' He nodded abruptly, checking there was no traffic behind him before pulling out to drive back down to the entrance to the main school building.
This whole incident could have been so much worse, Nick acknowledged gratefully. He had been too distracted by the memory of that earlier unsatisfactory conversation with Bekka to even notice this woman stepping off the pavement in front of his car. Until he'd heard that telling thump, that was.
He glanced at the woman beside him briefly. 'I'll give you my business cardjust in case you suffer any ill-effects from the accident later on today and need to contact me.'