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"YOU look like a princess," a sleepy voice murmured.
And she did. Like a gypsy princess. Barefoot, in a white slubsilk slip dress trimmed with lace, with a crimson feather boa draped round her shoulders, a sparkly tiara in her hair and dark curls corkscrewing down her back, she should have looked a mess. Like an adult playing at dressing up.
Instead, she looked good enough to eat.
And he could imagine her wearing just the feather boa Leo Ballantyne was furious with himself for thinking that way about Rose Carterhis baby sister's best friend and, in his view, the worst thing that had ever happened to Sara. Rose was bad news, with a capital B. And now Sara had gone off somewhere for a few days and left Roseone of her flakiest, most unreliable friendsto look after Daisy.
So much for thinking that motherhood had settled Sara and made her more responsible; she still clearly had the "wild child' streak she'd had since her teens, doing whatever she pleased and leaving everyone else to sort out the chaos she trailed in her wake.
And no way was Leo letting his four-year-old niece stay in the care of Rose Carter. Even if Rose was cuddling Daisy right now and reading her a story. Daisy should have been in bed and asleep ages ago. And the flat was a complete tip. The living room looked as if it had been burgled, with things strewn everywhere and a huge pile of laundry just dumped on one of the chairs. He shuddered to think what the kitchen looked like. How could one woman make so much mess in the space of half a day?
Then Rose glanced up, saw him leaning against the doorjamb, and shrieked.
"It's all right, Aunty Rose, it's not a burglar. It's only Uncle Leo,"Daisy said as she peered round Rose. She gave Leo the wide smile that always melted his heart, and a tiny little wave. "Lo, Uncle Leo."
He smiled back. "Hello, Princess."
Rose stroked the little girl's hair. "I'm sorry if I scared you when I screamed, Daze. I was just a bit surprised because I wasn't expecting to see anyone."Her mouth thinned as she looked straight at Leo again. "I didn't hear you knock."
Because he hadn't bothered. He'd found out the situation from his mother; Sara's phone had switched to answering machine and her mobile phone had been turned off, so he'd driven straight over to Sara's flat to see for himself what the situation was and whether his niece was all right.
Right now, his worst fears had been realised.
He became aware that Rose was waiting for an answer. Why hadn't he knocked? "I have Sara's spare key."
"And you normally just let yourself in?"
Of course not. He had that key for emergenciesand, in his view, this counted as an emergency. Was Rose trying to make him feel guilty for looking after his little sister and his niece? "This isn't a normal situation," he said coolly.
Rose frowned at him. "Pas devant l'enfant."
He blinked. Was it his imagination, or had she just spoken French to him in a perfect accent? He'd had no idea that she knew French. Not in front of the child. She was right. They shouldn't drag Daisy into this. And it riled him that she was the one who'd been responsible enough to think of it, not him.
"Go and make yourself a coffee or something. I'm reading Daisy a bedtime story. And then you're going to go to sleep, aren't you, sweetheart, while Uncle Leo and I have a little chat in the kitchen?"
"Yes, Aunty Rose." The little girl smiled trustingly at Rose.
It irritated him that Rose had somehow taken charge, but there wasn't much he could do right now. Not without creating a scene and upsetting Daisy at bedtime, which he wasn't willing to do. It wasn't his little niece's fault. And he should be protecting her, not putting yet more disorder into her life.
"Goodnight, Princess. Sleep well," Leo said. He had to walk across the room and lean across Rose to kiss his niece goodnight. Bad move. Because Rose's perfume was the sexiest thing he'd smelled in weeks, and it was oh, so tempting to move back very slightly and kiss her, too.
He yanked his self-control back in place, just in time, then left the room and headed for the kitchen. Which was absolutely spotless. Well, Rose had left the dinner things to air-dry on the draining-board, but apart from that everything was clean and tidy. Maybe he'd overreacted about the living room. He made himself a cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table.
Everything about Rose Carter set his teeth on edge. From the boho chic of her dress, to her chaotic lifestyle, to the sweet vanilla scent of her perfume. Like a topnote for rich, dark chocolate. It made him want to taste her, when really he should want to throttle her. Rose really wasn't good for Sara. She'd encouraged Sara to drop out of college when Sara had fallen pregnant; and, worse, he knew Rose had been in court charged with handling stolen goods. He'd hoped that maybe Sara would grow out of the friendshiphe'd already learned the hard way that Sara did the opposite of whatever her family suggested, so he hadn't made a big issue of itbut it seemed that Rose was still hanging round his sister and dragging her down.
There were pictures pinned to the corkboard on the wall next to the kitchen table. Pictures of Daisy and Sara dressed in the same kind of boho chic as Rose. Second-hand clothes. In one picture, Sara and Rose had their arms draped round each other, gigglingthe best of friends. Like sisters.
But Sara didn't need a substitute sister. She had three older brothersbrothers who adored her and spoiled her stupid as the baby of the family. Brothers who'd always looked after her. Though Joe and Milo were both working in Brussels for the next six months so Leo, as the eldest, had the sole responsibility for looking out for Sara. And he was doing his best, trying to juggle a crazy schedule at work with keeping an eye on his sister and making sure she didn't get into an even bigger messbecause Sara just attracted chaos.
And one of the biggest bits of chaos was in the shape of Rose Carter.
Then Rose walked in and closed the kitchen door behind her. It felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room and the temperature had just gone up ten degrees. Ha. Leo wasn't scared of her. At a little over six feet tall, he was a good seven or eight inches taller than she was. She'd shed the tiara and the boa, but was still barefoot. And slender. He could easily pick her up, dump her outside the flat and lock the door, if he chose.
Though thinking about lifting her up wasn't a good idea. Because it made him think about pinning her against the wall and kissing the pulse that throbbed at the base of her neck. Before having wild, wild sex.
And he had the nasty feeling that she knew it. "So," she said, very quietly. "You've decided to honour your sister with a visit. Shame she's not here."
Honour Sara with a visit? That rankledRose made it sound as if he never bothered with his sister. Which was very, very far from the case. "Not that it's any of your business, I ring her three times a week," he said stiffly.
Rose shrugged. "If you say so."
Was she suggesting that he was lying? Leo felt his jaw tense. Of course he rang Sara three times a week! He'd even set an alarm on his laptop, so if he was working on a pile of case notes he wouldn't get so sidetracked by his work that he'd forget to call her. And he took Daisy out one Saturday a month. He'd ring and visit more often except he knew his little sister would complain he was smothering her or checking up on her and cramping her style. He'd thought he was managing a very tricky tightrope rather well.
But clearly Sara thought otherwise and was claiming he didn't bother with her. Which annoyed him even more. He'd given up on his sister for about a month, just after she'd dropped out of collegesimply because he'd been fed up with sorting out her mistakes, he'd realised that she never took any notice of the advice he gave her, and he'd thought that maybe letting her stand on her own two feet for a change might give her a different perspective and make her grow up a bit. It hadn't, so he'd gone back to keeping an eye on her. But Sara had never quite forgiven him for taking that big step back.
He could explain this to Rose though he didn't see what business it was of hers. Or why her opinion of him should matter. So instead he folded his arms and retreated into silence.
"Thank you for making me a coffee, by the way," Rose added. The sarcasm stungthe more so because she'd made him sound thoughtless, selfish and rude. "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. And I didn't know how long you'd be. There was no point in letting a cup of coffee go cold."
"No." She walked over to the kettle and switched it on. Even though her dress was ankle-length and perfectly demure, Leo was still aware of how good her legs were and the faint swish of her dress made him think of the sound the material would make as it pooled at her feetjust before he lifted her and those beauti
Ah, hell. He argued niceties as a living. He was good at it. But Rose Carter made him tongue-tied. His libido simply took over his brain and supplied enough images to make him wary of speaking, in case he said any of his thoughts aloud. It was one of the reasons he never actually said her namehe was scared it might come out as a hiss of pure desire.
How was it possible to detest someone yet want them so badly at the same time?
"Want a refill?"
And she'd managed to wrong-foot him again. Just when he was working himself up for a fight with her, she turned on the courtesy. Did everything he hadn't done.
"No. Thanks," he added belatedly. "Suit yourself." Just to rub it in, she didn't make herself a coffee. She used some kind of teabagsomething that turned the water a dark ruby colour. He wasn't going to ask. Even though it smelled enticingsweet, fruity, spicy, something he couldn't quite placehe wasn't going to ask.
She came to sit at the table opposite him. "So what's the problem?"
Sitting this close, he could smell her perfume as well as the fruit tea. Soft and sexy and bewitching. All he had to do was reach out and he could touch her. Find out if her skin was as soft as it looked. Find out just how silky those corkscrew curls were. Find out just how well her lips would fit against his own.
He pulled himself together. This wasn't about Rose. It was about Sara and Daisy. Sara was old enough to look after herself; Daisy wasn't. "It's time Sara started facing her responsibilities."
Rose scoffed. "She does."
"Oh, really?" Leo spread his hands in exasperation. "Let me see. She kicks up hell to go to art collegethen, just as my parents had accepted that maybe she had made the right choice for her instead of acting on a whim, she drops out. So they were right all along. She would never have stuck it out."
Rose folded her arms. "Listen to yourself! What was she supposed to dotry and cope with settling in to motherhood and study at the same time? Come on. It was obvious she needed to take a year out."
"But she's never gone back, and Daisy's almost five. She doesn't have a proper job or even a routine; she just muddles through doing this and that. And then she disappears for the weekend on a whim and dumps Daisy on just about anyone who's available."
The smug, insufferable, conceited Rose counted to ten. And then did it all over again so she'd manage to keep her voice calm and even when she spoke. "Maybe you should try supporting her, for a change."
"Like you do?" His voice was as soft as hers but held just as much of an edge. "Mmm, you've done a great job. You introduced her to Paris Randall in the first place, if I remember correctly."
The art student who'd swept Sara off her feet, got her pregnant, then vanished when he realised that Sara's family wasn't going to keep them both in luxury for the rest of their days. Paris had been doing one of the same course options as Rose, and they'd been talking in a coffee shop after a lecture when Sara had bounced in. Rose had introduced thembut she hadn't expected them to fall in love. Or for ParisParis, with his winsome smile and melting chocolate-brown eyes and adorable curly hairto turn out to be so spineless and leave Sara to deal with the baby by herself.
"As you said, sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. And don't you think I already feel bad enough about Paris?" Rose asked.
Leo shrugged, as if to say, I don't give a damn what you feel. He was cold, hard lawyer material. Exactly what Rose had run from becoming, all those years ago. She didn't like what Leo Ballantyne stood forwhich was the main reason why she avoided him as much as possible. Sara's other brothers and her parents were almost as badall full of shoulds and musts and bossing her about. Stuffy in the extreme: they couldn't see just how much fun Sara was. Everything had to be wrapped up in responsibilities. "Spontaneous' wasn't a word in their vocabulary.
"And then, of course, there's the court case," Leo added. Trust him to bring that up. "The verdict upheld my innocence." He spread his hands. "We both know that guilty people go to court and get off on a technicality."
No smoke without fire. Mud stuck. Whatever cliché you used, it came down to the same thing. Rose's reputation had been sullied. She'd nearly lost her curator's job over itand only the fact that she worked hard and was good at what she did had saved her. As it was, she had little hope of getting the job of her dreams. Because that damned court case was going to haunt her for years. The history of fashion was a small worldand, even though she was innocent, some people would still doubt her. People like Leo. People who played things by the book instead of trusting to their instincts. "I wasn't guilty in the first place," she said quietly. "And I don't give a damn what you think of me." Not quite true, but she wasn't going to go there right now. She lifted her chin. "I know the truth, and that's what matters." Even though the truth behind that was even more shameful.
He gave her a scathing look as if to say, You wouldn't know what the truth was if it jumped up and gave you a kiss.
And she couldn't meet his eyes. Not after thinking that word. Kiss. What would Leo's mouth be like when it was warm and soft with passion, instead of cold and hard with lawyerly cynicism? She'd never seen him smile. But if he was anything like his sister, that smile would light him up from the inside. He'd be absolutely stunning.
He coughed, and she realised he'd been speaking. She'd missed whatever he said. Lost in a flight of fancy about kissing Leo Ballantyne. Ha. Hell would freeze over before that ever happened. "I'm sorry. You were saying?"
"My mother said she'd had a text from Sara. That she's gone off somewhere for the weekend."
The way Leo said it, it sounded as if Sara had just dropped her responsibilities without a second thought and was gadding about somewhere. Rose had planned to be civil to him, but his attitude made her good intentions melt. "You really are a narrowminded bigot, aren't you? For your information, she's gone to a spa for the weekend. And before you start complaining about how much it costs to go to a spa and she's frittering away her money, it's an early birthday present. From me."
"And what about Daisy?" Leo asked. "I'm looking after her. Which was planned right from the moment I booked the spa. It was all part of the deal."Rose resisted the urge to throw her tea over Leo. Just. "Has it ever occurred to you what it's like, being a single mum? Day in, day out, you're the one who has all the responsibility. You're the one who makes shoulders, share the load. But Sara never complains. And I thought she deserved something special for her milestone birthday. Her twenty-fifth. A quarter of a centuryworth celebrating, don't you think? A bit of me-time, a bit of spoiling, will do her good. But you lot are always so damned hard on her."
"She can't just drop her responsibilities whenever she wants to," Leo insisted. "And she's got a family to support her."
He called what they offered support? Rose shook her head. "Do things your way or you'll harangue her until she does? If it wasn't for the physical resemblance, I'd say Sara was a changeling, because she's nothing like your family. She's worth more than the rest of you put togetherand it's about time you lot understood that money isn't everything."
His flinch told her the barb had hit home. Good. Rose already knew that Sara's family helped her financially. But that was only money. Sara was just the kid sister who'd gone off the rails and everyone was going to disapprove of her until she did what they told her to. Sara broke her heart over itand Rose was the one who mopped up the tears.