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Sarah came to a standstill in the middle of the car park, her fist tightening around the envelope in her hand.
She had to find an eligible bachelor. As an item in a scavenger hunt.
Since she'd conspicuously failed to find one of those in real life, her chances of success tonight seemed slim.
Beyond the rows of shiny Mercedes and BMWs parked outside Oxfordshire's trendiest dining pub, the fields and streams and woodland coppices she had grown up amongst lay golden and peaceful in the low summer sun. She gazed out across them, the envelope still clutched in her hand as adrenaline fizzed through her bloodstream and her mind raced.
She didn't have to go in there; didn't have to take part in this stupid scavenger hunt for her sister's hen weekend; didn't have to be the butt of everyone's jokes all the time—Sarah, nearly thirty and on the shelf. No, she knew these fields like the back of her hand, and could remember loads of good hiding places.
Thrusting a hand through her tangled curls, she sighed. Hiding up a tree might be considerably more appealing than going into a pub and having to find an eligible bachelor, but at the age of twenty-nine it was slightly less socially acceptable. And she couldn't really spend the rest of her life hiding. Everyone said she had to get back out there and face it all again, for Lottie's sake. Children needed two parents, didn't they? Girls needed fathers. Sooner or later she should at least try to find someone to fill the rather sudden vacancy left by Rupert.
The prospect made her feel cold inside.
Later. Definitely later, rather than sooner. Right now she was going to—
The doors to the baropened and a group of city types spilled out, laughing and slapping each other on the back in an excess of beery camaraderie. They barely glanced at her as they walked past, but almost as an afterthought the last one dutifully held the door open for her.
Hell. There was no way she could not go in now. They'd think she was some kind of weirdo whose idea of a good night out was hanging around in a pub car park. Stammering her thanks, she slipped into the dim interior of the bar, shoving the envelope into the back pocket of her jeans with a shaking hand.
In the years since she'd moved away from Oxfordshire The Rose and Crown had transformed itself from a tiny rural pub with swirly-patterned carpets and faded hunting prints on the nicotine-stained walls to a temple of good taste, with reclaimed-oak floors, exposed brickwork and a background soundtrack of achingly trendy 'mood music' obviously intended to help the clientele of stockbrokers and barristers feel instantly 'chilled out'.
It made Sarah feel instantly on edge. And about ninety years old.
She was about to turn round and walk straight out again when some latent sense of pride stopped her. It was ridiculous, she thought impatiently; she was used to doing things on her own. She put up shelves on her own. She did her income-tax form without help. She brought up her daughter completely singlehandedly. She could surely walk into a bar and get herself a drink.
Murmuring apologies, she slipped through the press of bodies into a space by the bar and glanced nervously around. The doors were open onto the terrace and she could see Angelica and her friends gathered round a big table in the centre. It would have been impossible to miss them. Even in this place, theirs was easily the noisiest, most glamorous group and was clearly attracting the attention of every single male within eyeing-up distance. They were all wearing T-shirts provided by Angelica's chief bridesmaid, a gazelle-like girl called Fenella, who worked in PR and who was also responsible for the scavenger-hunt idea. The T-shirts had 'Angelica's final fling' emblazoned across the front in pink letters, and Fenella had only had them made in a size 'small'.
Sarah tugged at hers surreptitiously, desperately trying to make it cover the strip of bare flesh above the waistband of her too-tight jeans. Perhaps if she'd actually stuck to her New Year diet she'd be out there now, laughing, tossing back cocktails and shiny hair and collecting eligible bachelors with the best of them. Hell, if she was a stone lighter perhaps she wouldn't even need an eligible bachelor because maybe then Rupert wouldn't have felt the need to get engaged to a glacial blonde Systems Analyst called Julia. But too many nights spent on the sofa while Lottie was asleep, with nothing but a bottle of cheap wine and the biscuit tin for company, had meant she'd failed to lose even a couple of pounds.
She'd definitely try extra-hard between now and the wedding, she vowed silently, trying to make her way to the bar. It was taking place in the ruined farmhouse Angelica and Hugh had bought in Tuscany and were currently having lavishly done up, and Sarah had a sudden mental image of Angelica's friends floating around the newly landscaped garden in their delicious little silken dresses, while she lurked in the kitchen, covering her bulk with an apron.
Fenella passed her now, on the way back from the bar with a handful of multicoloured drinks sprouting umbrellas and cherries. She eyed Sarah with cool amusement. 'There you are! We'd almost given up on you. What are you drinking?'
'Oh—er—I'm just going to have a dry white wine,' said Sarah. She should really opt for a slimline tonic, but hell, she needed something to get her through the rest of the evening.
Fenella laughed—throwing her head back and producing a rich, throaty sound that had every man in the vicinity craning round to look. 'Nice try, but I don't think so. Look in your envelope—it's the next challenge,' she smirked, sliding through the crowd towards the door.
With her heart sinking faster than the Titanic, Sarah slid the envelope from her pocket and pulled out the next instruction.
She gave a moan of dismay.
The beautiful, lithe youth behind the bar flickered a glance in her direction and gave a barely perceptible jerk of his head, which she took as a grudging invitation to order. Her heart was hammering uncomfortably against her ribs and she could feel the heat begin to rise to her cheeks as she opened her mouth.
'I'd like a Screaming Orgasm, please.'
The voice that came from her dry throat was low and cracked, but sadly not in a good way. The youth lifted a scornful eyebrow.
'A Screaming Orgasm,' Sarah repeated miserably. She could feel the press of bodies behind her as other people jostled for a place at the bar. Her cheeks were burning now, and there was an uncomfortable prickling sensation rippling down the back of her neck, as if she was being watched. Which, of course, she was, she thought despairingly. Every one of Angelica's friends had temporarily suspended their own professional flirtation operations and was peering in through the open doors, suppressing their collective mirth.
Well, at least they were finding this amusing. The youth flicked back his blond fringe and regarded her with dead eyes. 'What's one of those?' he said tonelessly.
'I don't know.' Sarah raised her chin and smiled sweetly, masking her growing desperation. 'I've never had one.'
'Never had a Screaming Orgasm? Then please, allow me…'
The voice came from just behind her, close to her ear, and was a million miles from the hearty, public-school bray of The Rose and Crown's usual clientele. As deep and rich as oak-aged cognac, it was infused with an accent Sarah couldn't immediately place, and the slightest tang of dry amusement.
Her head whipped round. In the crush at the bar it was impossible to get a proper look at the man who had spoken. He was standing close behind her and was so tall that her eyes were on a level with the open neck of his shirt, the triangle of olive skin at his throat.
She felt an unfamiliar lurch in the pit of her stomach as he leaned forward in one fluid movement, towering over her as he spoke to the youth behind the bar.
'One shot each of vodka, Kahlua, Amaretto…'
His voice really was something else. Italian. She could tell by the way he said Amaretto', as if it were an intimate promise. Her nipples sprang to life beneath the tiny T-shirt.
God, what was she doing? Sarah Halliday didn't let strange men buy her cocktails in pubs. She was a grown woman with a five-year-old daughter and the stretch marks to prove it. She'd been madly in love with the same man for nearly seven years. Lusting after strangers in bars wasn't her style.
'Thanks for your help,' she mumbled, 'but I can get this myself.'
She glanced up at him again and felt her chest tighten. The evening sun was coming from behind him but Sarah had an impression of dark hair, angular features, a strong jaw shadowed with several days of stubble. The exact opposite of Rupert's English, golden-boy good looks, she thought with a shiver. Compelling rather than handsome.
And then he turned and looked back at her.
It felt as if he'd reached out and pulled her into the warmth of his body. His narrowed eyes were so dark that even this close she couldn't see where the irises ended and the pupils began, and they travelled over her face lazily for a second before slipping downwards.
'I'd like to get it for you.'
He said it simply, emotionlessly, as a statement of fact, but there was something about his voice that made the blood throb in her ears, her chest, her too-tight jeans.
'No, really, I can…'
With shaking hands she opened her purse and peered inside, but the chemical reaction that had just taken place in the region of her knickers was making it difficult to see clearly or think straight.
Apart from a handful of small change her purse was virtually empty, and with a rush of dismay she remembered handing over her last five-pound note to Lottie for the swear box. Lottie's policy on swearing was draconian and—since she'd introduced a system of fines—extremely lucrative. Clearly her killer business instinct had come from Rupert. The frustrations of the scavenger hunt this afternoon had cost Sarah dearly.
Now she looked up in panic and met the deadpan stare of the barman.
'Nine pounds fifty,' he said flatly.
Nine pounds fifty? She'd ordered a drink, not a three-course meal—she and Lottie could live for a week on that. Faint with horror, she looked down into her purse again while her numb brain raced. When she raised her head again it was to see the stranger hand a note over to the blond youth and pick up the ridiculous drink.
He moved away from the bar, and the crowd through which she'd had to fight a passage fell away for him, like the Red Sea before Moses. Unthinkingly she found herself following him, and couldn't help her gaze from lingering on the breadth of his shoulders beneath the faded blue shirt he wore. He seemed to dwarf every other man in the packed room.
He stopped in the doorway to the terrace and held out the drink to her. It was white and frothy, like a milkshake. A very expensive milkshake.
'Your first Screaming Orgasm. I hope you enjoy it.'
His face was expressionless, his tone dutifully courteous, but as she took the glass from him their fingers touched and Sarah felt electricity crackle up her arm.
She snatched her hand away so sharply that some of the cocktail splashed onto her wrist. 'I doubt it,' she snapped.
The stranger's dark eyebrows rose in sardonic enquiry.
'Oh, God, I'm so sorry,' Sarah said, horrified by her own crassness. 'That sounds so ungrateful after you paid for it. It's just that it's not a drink I'd usually choose, but I'm sure it'll be delicious.' And account for about three days' calorie allowance, she thought, taking a large gulp and forcing herself to look appreciative. 'Mmm…lovely.'
His eyes held her, dark and steady. 'Why did you ask for it if it's not your kind of thing?'
Sarah gave a half-hearted smile. 'I have nothing against screaming orgasms in theory, but,' she held up the envelope, 'it's a scavenger hunt. You have to collect different items on a list. It's my sister's hen weekend, you see…'
Half-sister. She probably should have explained. Right now he was no doubt wondering which one of the beautiful thoroughbred babes out there she could possibly share a full set of genes with.
'So I gathered.' He glanced down at her T-shirt and then out into the warm evening, where Angelica and Fenella and their friends had collected a veritable crowd of eligible bachelors and were cavorting conspicuously with them. 'You don't seem to be enjoying it quite as much as the others.'
'Oh, no, I'm having a great time.' Sarah made a big effort to sound convincing. One of Angelica's friends was a holistic counsellor and had told her at lunchtime that she had a 'negative aura'. She took another mouthful of the disgusting cocktail and tried not to gag.
Gently he took the glass from her and put it on the table behind them. 'You are one of the worst actresses that I've come across in a long time.'
'Thanks,' she mumbled. 'There goes my promising career as a Hollywood screen goddess.'
'Believe me, it was a compliment.'
She looked up quickly, wondering if he was teasing her, but his expression was utterly serious. For a moment their eyes locked. The bolt of pure, stinging desire that shot through her took her completely by surprise and she felt the blood surge up to her face.
'So what else is on your list of things to find?' he asked.
'I don't know yet.' She tore her gaze away from his and looked down at the envelope in her hand. 'It's all in here. As you get each item you open up the next envelope.'
'How many have you got so far?'
His long, downturned mouth quirked into half a smile, but Sarah noticed that it didn't chase the shadows from his eyes. 'The drink was the first?'
'Actually it was the second. But I gave up on the first.'
She shook her head, deliberately letting her hair fall over her face. 'It's not important.'
His fingers closed around the envelope in her hand and gently he took it from her. For a second she tried to snatch it back but he was too strong for her and she looked away in embarrassment as he unfolded the paper and read what was written there.
She looked past him into the blue summer evening. Out on the terrace, Fenella was watching her, and Sarah saw her nudge Angelica and smirk as she nodded in Sarah's direction.
'Dio mio,' said the man beside her, his husky Italian voice tinged with distaste. 'You have to "collect" an eligible bachelor?'
'Yes. Not exactly my forte.'Angrily Sarah turned away from the curious glances from the terrace and gave a short, bitter laugh. 'I don't suppose you're one, are you?'