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She glanced at her neat gold wrist-watch. Eight minutes to ten; he was early. She forced herself to breathe deeply before saying, "Ask Mr Ward to wait a few moments, please, Jenny."
"Yes, Miss Milburn."
The intercom clicked goodbye and Rosalie sank back in the big leather chair, her heart racing. This was stupid; this was so, so stupid. What on earth was the matter with her? She had been like a cat on a hot tin roof since Kingsley Ward had made the appointment a week ago - or rather his secretary had liaised with her secretary, to be exact.
Of course she could have insisted he see one of the other three partners in the firm of chartered quantity surveyors she was part of, after her polite message - again via the two secretaries - that she was terribly busy but had arranged for Mr Ward to see a colleague had been turned down flat.
Mr Ward was quite happy to wait until she was available, his secretary had told Jenny, and there was no question of seeing someone else. Miss Milburn had been personally recommended, and Mr Ward always went on personal recommendation.
And now he was here. Rosalie glanced nervously round the big, light-filled office that tended to be her home from home with the long hours she worked. She even slept on the couch that occupied one corner when the occasion warranted it. Kingsley Ward was here and it was only at this precise moment that she acknowledged the meeting had been weighing on her spirit like a ton of bricks. It wasn't even as if they had got on that evening at Jamie's house - just the opposite, in fact.
Rosalie stood, walking across to the massive plate-glass window that overlooked half of Kensington. She stared into the street below without really seeing any of the little ant-type figures scurrying about, a frown wrinkling the pure line of her brow.
She could remember the exact moment she had walked into Jamie's large and very plush drawing room in Richmond and glanced across the assembled couples, only to find her gaze held and transfixed by a pair of piercingly blue eyes, which had narrowed to twin points of light on her face. She had been aware of David at the side of her saying something, but for the life of her she had been unable to move or speak. And then the cerulean gaze, its deep blue as clear as a summer's sky, had released her, the man in question turning his head in answer to something the woman on his arm had said. She had taken a deep and very necessary gasp of air, deep enough for David to say anxiously, "Are you all right, Lee? What's the matter?"
"The matter? Nothing," She forced a smile, before adding, "How are you feeling? That's more to the point." David was an old and very dear university friend who had just been through a painful and acrimonious divorce, which had caused him to totter on the edge of a nervous breakdown for months. The evening was his first venture into the social scene since his wife had left him, taking their two children to live with her new lover, and he had been visibly shaking in the taxi earlier. Only the fact that they were as comfortable together as a pair of old shoes had persuaded him to leave his recently acquired bachelor flat when she had called for him.
"I'm okay." His smile was more of a grimace and Rosalie felt for him. "It's just that I've never been much good at this sort of thing, dinner parties and such. Ann was always the one who was the life and soul of the party."
Ann had been a cold-hearted, predatory exhibitionist who had systematically alienated every other female she had ever come into contact with, along with making a play for every man. However, Rosalie thought it wasn't the right time to point that out.
"Nonsense," she said briskly. "You're great company, you always have been, it's just that your confidence has taken a bit of a mauling lately." Which was putting it mildly. "Now, we're just going to circulate and smile and make polite conversation whilst we sip one of Jamie's magnificent cocktails and contemplate the superb dinner ahead. Did you know he's buttonholed one of the chefs from Hatfields tonight? Apparently he's a friend of a friend and Jamie's offered him a small fortune to come and put on this dinner on his evening off."
"Really?" David was an accountant and now the pound sign showed in his eyes. "How much is a small fortune?"
"Ask Gabby, she'll be sure to know." Rosalie guided him over to one of their more inquisitive friends who had a reputation for winkling anything out of anyone, and stood listening with some amusement to their conversation.
That died abruptly when a smooth voice at her elbow said, "Rosalie. Unusual name. French origin, I think?" and she turned to see the possessor of the faint American burr.
Kingsley Ward was tall, very tall, with a muscled strength that made the beautifully tailored dinner jacket sit on him like a designer's dream, Rosalie remembered now, her cheeks flushing at the memory. He was hard and ruggedly handsome, his face one of sharply defined planes and angles, which said he took no prisoners, and she gazed up at him with a sensation akin to numbness freezing her response. Ebony hair cut very short along with ridiculously thick eyelashes emphasised the brilliant blue of his eyes even more close to, but it was the overall sense of maleness that was so intimidating. Uncomfortably, unsettlingly intimidating. Enough to make her want to turn tail and run.
Instead she lifted her chin ever so slightly, calling on all the resources of her thirty-one years as she said coolly, "My mother was French."
"That explains the chic and classical elegance."
Yuk, what a smoothie! And if there was anything she disliked it was handsome smooth-talkers who thought they were God's gift to the female race.
She was unaware that her thoughts were mirrored in her eyes until the warm social smile and interested expression on the hard face vanished. His gaze took on the quality of blue ice, and he said coolly, "I have obviously interrupted a riveting conversation you are anxious to get back to. Excuse me," at which point he turned and walked away, leaving her feeling more than a little ashamed of herself. And she hated feeling like that.
The way the evening had gone thus far she supposed it was inevitable she was seated between David and Kingsley Ward for dinner. He was coldly polite to her, and charming and amusing to everyone else, and as she sat and listened to the banter as the meal progressed she was forced to admit he was excellent company.
But of course men like Kingsley Ward often were excellent company, Rosalie reminded herself now, turning from the window. They loved to be the centre of attention for one thing, and for another, with natural attributes like devastating good looks and a physique most men would kill for, they had a self-confidence and air of sexy wickedness that was an aphrodisiac all in itself.
Was that why she had dressed with such care this morning? And then she answered the nasty little probing voice from her conscience with a sharp, No, not at all! She always made sure she was well turned out for the office, and with a prospective new client it was extra important. That was all. That definitely was all.
The wrist-watch reminded her it was a minute to ten and bite-the-bullet time. She sat down again at her desk, smoothed her hair and took a deep breath. She resisted the impulse to check her make-up in the mirror in her cosmetics bag and felt quite proud of herself for doing so.
"Right." She pressed the intercom. "I can see Mr Ward now, Jenny," she said brightly.
Excerpted from Mistress by Agreement by Helen Brooks Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 25, 2010
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