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'Quick, Lou, major hottie alert. Twelve o'clock.'
Louisa DiMarco's fingers paused on the keyboard of her computer at the urgent whisper from her editorial assistant, Tracy. 'I'm on deadline here, Trace,' she muttered. 'And I happen to take my work seriously.'
Louisa was a professional. One of Blush magazine's most popular and well-respected feature writers. Just because this article about the pros and cons of breast enlargement was giving her a headachewhat were the pros anyway?she would not be distracted from it because Tracy had spotted some good-looking guy in the office.
'We're talking scorching,' Tracy crooned. 'You will not want to miss this guy.'
Louisa kept her head down and carried on typing. For about two seconds.
'For goodness' sake!' She clicked on her screen to save. 'All right, one quick peek. But this had better be good.' Surely even a dedicated features writer like herself was entitled to some recreational pursuits on the hottest, stuffiest, most boring Friday afternoon in the history of the world ever?
Louisa peered round her computer to get a better view of the vast open-plan office, not expecting to be impressed. Tracy's taste in men generally stank. Still, even Tracy's idea of what constituted a hottie couldn't make Louisa feel as queasy as the pictures she'd been looking at all afternoon. 'Where is Adonis, then?' she asked.
'Over there.' Tracy pointed to the far end of the office. 'The bloke with Piers,' she said, her voice hushed in reverence. 'Isn't he magnificent?'
Louisa sent her assistant a quick grin. Good to know she wasn't the only stir-crazy female on the premises. She looked past the desks of journalists typing like crazy on the last Friday before press day, and spied two men with their backs to the room by the receptionist's desk.
Louisa blinked. Tracy hadn't just surprised her. She'd astonished her. Louisa was the office's acknowledged hottie connoisseur and even she couldn't fault the guy. Not from this angle anyway. Tall, dark and broad shouldered, with an expertly tailored navy-blue designer suit, Adonis was making their managing editor, Piers Parker, who was at least five foot ten, look like a midget.
'What do you think?' Tracy said impatiently.
Louisa tilted her head to one side to get a better look. Even from fifty feet away the man deserved an appreciative purr. 'Well, he certainly qualifies from the rear,' she purred. 'But I think we'd need to see his face to make a final appraisal. As you know, no one enters the DiMarco Hottie Hall of Fame until they've passed the face test.'
Standing stiffly with his legs braced apart, Adonis chose that moment to thrust one fist into his trouser pocket. His body language radiated controlled irritation. Louisa didn't care. The movement had made his jacket rise up over his butt, improving the view even more. Now, if he would just turn around and come a bit closer
Something teased the edges of Louisa's memory as she pressed her pen against her bottom lip and waited. She ignored it. This was definitely an improvement on silicone implants.
The clatter of computer keyboards and the buzz of conversation slowly tapered off as every woman in the place became aware of the designer-suited stranger in their midst. Louisa could almost hear a collective oestrogen-loaded sigh over the hum of expectation.
'Maybe he's the new assistant editor?' Tracy said hopefully.
'I doubt it. That suit's new season Armani, and Piers is practically genuflectingwhich means Adonis is either on the board of directors or he's an Arsenal player,' Louisa whispered back.
Although she wouldn't be surprised if he was a sportsman, with that lean, athletic build, Louisa couldn't imagine a professional footballer looking so debonair.
Louisa fluffed her hair instinctively. Goodness, she was actually holding her breath. It had been so long since she'd had the urge to flirt she almost didn't recognise the feeling. How long had it been since she'd felt excited in the presence of a good-looking man?
The errant thought had an image forming that she instantly repressed. Do not go there. Her radar had been spectacularly off that day, but it had been over three months ago. Twelve weeks, four days andshe did a quick calculationsixteen hours, to be exact. Luke Devereaux, the handsome, charming Lord of Berwick and bona fide snake in the grass, no longer had the power to upset her. But the prickle of memory developed into a nasty little thorn, scratching at her consciousness.
Louisa's brow furrowed as Piers turned to point straight at her. How odd. Adonis followed in slow motion, but then a pair of piercing and painfully familiar grey eyes fixed on her face, and the little thorn became a jagged blade slicing through the sensual mist.
Louisa's fingers went numb, her heart thudded like a sledgehammer, all her blood rocketed into her cheeks, and the hairs on the back of her neck felt as if a greedy fist had wrenched them out at the roots. And then heat blazed through her body as the memory she'd been repressing for the last three months hit her like a red-hot slapstrong fingers stroking her, insistent lips fastened on the pulse-point in her neck, and wave upon glorious wave of orgasm rocketing up from her core.
A tangle of nerves, fury and nausea snaked into a vicious knot in the pit of her stomach.
What was he doing here?
That was no Adonis. The man walking towards her was the devil incarnate.
'Wow, he's coming over here,' Tracy announced over the pneumatic drill now shattering Louisa's eardrums. 'Oh-my-God! Isn't that Lord What's-his-name? You knowhe was in your Britain's Most Eligible Bachelors list in the May issue. Maybe he's here to thank you.'
Hardly, Louisa thought bitterly. He'd already exacted his revenge for that list three months ago. Louisa's spine snapped straight and she folded her legs tightly under her chair. The tap of her high-heeled leather boot against the chair's stem sounded like the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun.
If he was here to take another cheap shot at her, he could forget it.
Louisa had seen him coming this time. He'd used her trusting nature, her innate flirtatiousness and her incendiary attraction to him against her three months ago. He would never catch her unawares again. This time she would fight back.
Luke Devereaux's long, purposeful strides ate up the acres of industrial blue carpeting as he zeroed in on his prey. He barely noticed the managing editor scuffling along at his heels, or the sea of female faces swivelling round to gawp at him. All his concentration, all his irritation, was focussed on one particular female. That she looked as stunningly beautiful as he remembered hershiny gold-streaked hair framing an angelic face, killer cleavage accentuated by a figure-hugging dress covered in a bold Lichtenstein-like cartoon print, and mile-long legs encased in knee-high bootsonly made him more determined to keep his cool.
Appearances were deceiving. This woman was no angel. What she was planning to do to him qualified as the worst thing a woman could do to a man.
Okay, things had got spectacularly out of hand three months ago. And he had to take a large part of the blame for that. The plan had been to teach her a little lesson about respecting people's privacynot take advantage of her the way he had.
But she deserved a large part of the blame too. He'd never met anyone as reckless and impulsive before in his life. And he wasn't a saint. When a woman looked like her, smelt like her and felt like she did, what did she think he'd do? He couldn't imagine any bloke being able to think clearly under the same circumstances. How could he possibly have known she wasn't as experienced as she appeared?
Well, one thing was for sure: he was through feeling guilty about his part in it.
After his little chat with their mutual friend Jack Devlin yesterday, all his guilt and all his regret over what had happened between them had given way to a slow-burning anger.
An innocent life was involvedand he'd do whatever he had to do to protect it.
Whatever hurts, whatever injustices he might have done her in the past, he had no qualms whatsoever about bending her to his will now. And the sooner she realised that, the better.
Louisa DiMarco was about to discover that Luke Devereaux never backed down from a fight.
What was it the late, unlamented Lord Berwick had said to him at their first and only meeting all those years ago? 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, boy.' He'd learnt that lesson the hard way when he was only seven years old. Frightened and alone, in a world he didn't know and didn't understand, he'd had to toughen up fast or go under. It was about time Miss DiMarco learnt the same lesson.
He reached Louisa's desk, saw the bright spark of fury in those stunning brown eyes, the smooth olive-toned skin mottled with temper and the elegant chin poked out in defiance. He imagined fisting his fingers in all those glorious blonde-brown curls and kissing her into submission.
To resist the urge he shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and kept his eyes flat and expressionless. It was a casual, predatory look that he knew terrorised his business opponents. Louisa, he noted, didn't even flinch.
The adrenalin rush he usually associated with a particularly tough new business challenge surged through his body. Teaching this woman how to face her responsibilities might actually be more of a pleasure than a pain. He was already anticipating the first lesson: getting Louisa to tell him what she should have told him weeks ago. 'Miss DiMarco, I want a word with you.'
I'll just bet you do.
Louisa ignored Tracy's sharp intake of breath and looked her tormentor square in the eye.
'Excuse me, but who are you?' Louisa asked, as if she didn't know.
'This is Luke Devereaux, the new Lord Berwick,' Piers supplied, announcing the information as if he were introducing the king of the universe. 'Don't you remember? We featured him in May's Eligible Bachelors issue. He's the new owner of'
Devereaux lifted a hand, halting Piers's sucking-up speech in mid-suck. 'Devereaux will do. I don't use the title,' he said, his eyes still boring into Louisa and his deep voice as annoyingly distinctive as she remembered it.
To think she'd once thought that accentcrisp British vowels underlaid with a lazy, measured cadence that sounded oddly Americanand that steely, impenetrable gaze were sexy. Somebody must have spiked her drink with Viagra that night. His voice didn't sound compelling any more, just detached, while the icy blue-grey of his irises looked cold, not enigmatic.
All of which would explain why she was fighting the urge to shiver in the middle of August.
'I'm sure that's all very fascinating.' She flicked her hair back. 'But I'm afraid I'm terribly busy at the moment. And we only do one Eligible Bachelors issue a year. Maybe if you're still eligible next year you could come back, and I'll interview you then.'
Louisa congratulated herself on the deliberate insult. She knew how much he had despised being on her list. But she didn't get as much satisfaction as she'd hoped. Instead of looking annoyed, he simply stared at her. Not by a single flicker of his eyelashes did he acknowledge the hit. Then, to her silent irritation, his mouth curved at the edges. He put his hand flat on her desk and leaned over her. The familiar citrus scent of the soap he used had her boot-heel tapping harder against the chair.
'You want to have this discussion in public? That's fine by me,' he said, in a voice so low only she could hear it. 'But then I'm not the one who works here.'
She didn't have a clue what this was all about, but from his predatory smile she suspected the 'discussion' he intended to have would be personal. As much as she didn't want to give him any quarter, at the same time she didn't want to be humiliated in front of everyone she worked with.
'All right, then, Mr Devereaux,' she remarked loudly, swivelling to turn off her computer. 'As luck would have it, I might be able to squeeze in an interview now. I could talk to our features editormaybe she'll consider putting it into next month's issue. You're obviously very keen to get your face out there, so the debutantes know what they're missing.'
He straightened away from her. One muscle in his cheek twitched. She'd got her hit that time.
'Which is not a lot,' she continued under her breath, going for the jackpot.
She didn't get it. The tension in his jaw disappeared and he smiled. 'That's very accommodating of you, Miss DiMarco,' he said. 'Believe me, I'll make it worth your while.'
Ignoring the thinly veiled threat, Louisa turned to Tracy, who was doing a very good impression of a goldfish. 'I'll finish the article later, Trace. Tell Pam I should still make the five o'clock deadline.'
'You won't be back this afternoon,' Devereaux announced from behind her.
Louisa had swung round to correct him when Piers butted in. 'Mr Devereaux has asked that you take the rest of the day off. I've already approved it.'
'But I've got an article due today,' Louisa said, stunned. Piers was usually a total Nazi about copy deadlines.
He waved the remark away, looking harassed. 'Pam's going to stick in an extra page of ads. Your article can wait till next month. If Mr Devereaux needs you with him today we'll have to accommodate him.'
What? Since when did the managing editor of Blush magazine take orders from aristocratic bullies like Luke Devereaux?
Devereaux, who'd been listening to their conversation with apparent indifference, chose that moment to pick her bag up from the desk. 'Is this yours?' he asked impatiently.
'Yes,' Louisa replied, still disorientated. What was going on here?
He took her arm and tugged her out of her chair. 'Let's go,' he said, steering her out of the office with his hand clamped on her elbow.