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Steve Anderson needed sleep. And the last thing he needed after a frustrating day investigating a glitch in a client's security system was his resident night-time fantasy interrupting that sleep.
He scowled at the sporty Honda parked outside the family home he shared with his sister, Cindy, before parking his ute in the garage. Anneliese Duffield, daughter of Melbourne's renowned heart surgeon, Dr Marcus Duffield, had dropped by. Cindy's best friend.
And sleep interrupter extraordinaire.
He passed the late-model silver vehicle on his way inside an extravagant twenty-first birthday present from her parents and scowled again, annoyed that he still remembered that evening so well.
They'd barely seen one another in those past three years Anneliese had been overseas with her parents for eighteen months and he'd been frequently interstate on business. When they had, on the odd occasion, crossed paths, she'd made it blazingly clear she didn't enjoy his company. But he'd seen her laughing and relaxed when she hadn't known he was watching and there was something about her besides the hot pull of lust. Something that always tied him up in knots
Stabbing his key in the back door, he reminded himself she tied everyone up in knots because she didn't possess an ounce of responsibility. Any resulting problems were sorted out by Mum and Dad.
But he could always smell the fragrance she left in the air. French, he imagined, and distinctively unique, as if she'd had it bottled exclusively. And perhaps she hadwouldn't that be just like her? Whatever, it always seemed to lodge in his nostrils and settle beneath his skin like an itch he couldn't scratch.
Hecould see now that his sister and her friend were engrossed in conversation and cheesecake in the kitchen and oblivious to him. He warned himself he should keep walking, head straight to his room. Take a shower. Something. Anything. Instead, he leaned against the door frame and watched Anneliese.
Sharp cheekbones caught the kitchen light. Deep auburn hair, styled in a blunt chin-length bob, framed an oval face. Curves in all the right places. Perfection.
But it was her eyes that drew him. Not quite green, not quite blue. The colour of blue gums on a misty day. Eyes that could haunt his dreams.
If he let them.
Irritated because on too many occasions to count they'd done just that, he pushed away from the doorway with a brusque, 'Hi.'
Anneliese's head swivelled to face him, eyes wide and wary, which irritated him all over again, but he tried for amiable. 'Can a hungry man get some of that?'
And, yep, no prizes for guessing how she'd interpret that question, he realised as soon as the words left his mouth, because just like that her eyes cooled, her posture stiffened. The spoon slid from her mouth, leaving a smear of cream on her lower lip before he was aware he'd been watching her mouth pout into that little moue of surprise.
Another strike against him.
Unable to resist adding to her discomfort, he tapped his own lip on the corresponding spot, saw the tip of her tongue dart out and lick it off. Her gaze remained locked with his, like a stunned rabbit's.
Cindy, completely oblivious, bounced out of her chair, her dark pony-tail swinging, then reached up to kiss his cheek. 'Of course you can. I was hoping you'd get here before Annie left. I'll get another plate.'
And the view was clear again. Anneliese looked as sweet and innocent as icing on a wedding cake and he struggled against inappropriate images that fuelled his blood further. 'How's it going, Anneliese?'
She seemed to have trouble articulating his name. Her trademark perfume wafted to his nose like a summer-filled breeze. She was wearing well-tailored dark trousers and a soft-looking striped sweater in the colours of coconut ice. Gold highlights shone through her hair, courtesy of some expensive salon procedure, no doubt.
A flush tinged her cheeks and a frown formed between per-fectly arched brows. She seemed to draw herself taller and retreat behind some kind of defence at the same time. 'I better be go'
'Don't let me interrupt whatever you were discussing. It sounded important.' Steve held Anneliese's eyes amoment longer, wondering what it would be like to break down that wall and just oncesee a smile directed at him that reached those eyes.
'Here you are. Passion-fruityour favourite.'
'Thanks, sis.' He remained standing as he took the plate Cindy held out to him. Carved off a mouthful of cheesecake from the box on the table with a spoon.
'And it is important.' Cindy addressed his comment. 'Annie's insisting on driving all the way to Surfers Paradise on Wednesdayaloneand I'm trying to talk her out of it.'
Steve caught Cindy's concerned look. Good luck with that. From what he'd observed, Annie always got her own way. But he agreed with his sisterhe didn't like the thought of any woman driving across the continent on her own.
He told himself it wasn't his problem, but it didn't quite work. His jaw clenched in aggravation. 'I imagine your father's not keen on you driving halfway across the country alone.'
'I'm twenty-four. Old enough to make my own decisions.'
The cheesecake turned sour in Steve's mouth. Some people were never old enoughmake that mature enough. Didn't it matter to Anneliese that her mother had died not five weeks ago and her father might need her here? Queensland's Gold Coast was a bustling tourist stripin his opinion not a place you'd go to contemplate your life or heal the hurts. And she should be doing those things here, with her father, not flitting off interstate.
He fought the impulse to sneer, scraped his spoon across the bottom of the cake box. 'Some decisions should be made after careful consideration to others' needs.' He schooled his voice to neutral except it didn't come out the way he'd intended.
For a flicker of time he saw something deeper than pain cross those misty eyes, but he didn't have time to ponder because Cindy spoke.
'Steve ' she said quietly, turning into him and touching his arm. 'You know Annie's dealing with serious personal issues right now. She's fragile. Be gentle.'
His gaze slid over Anneliese's curves beneath the soft sweater and his hands curled around the tingle. Gentle. He could imagine being gentle with Anneliese a little too vividly.
Cindy patted at his arm again. 'I know you're flying to Brisbane in the next week or two for work and I've come up with an idea You've got reliable staff here to cover for you, so if you're not in a hurry you could drive with Annie, look out for her '
A choked sound bubbled up from Anneliese's throat as he stared at Cindy. He was momentarily speechless. Obviously her friend was, too. Look out for Anneliese? As in personal escort? He felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Just the two of them. All the way to Queensland. Presumably in her sporty car that was way too confining for his six-foot-plus frame.
Cindy must have intuited his answer because she cajoled and patted some more. 'Please, Steve. I'd go myself but I'm trying out for that promotion and I can't get the time off work.'
He turned to Anneliese, who looked as gobsmacked as he, but aimed his question at Cindy. 'Don't you think you should be asking Anneliese what she has to say?'
'She'll do it for me.' Barely a glance at her friend. 'Won't you, Annie? There. It's done.'
He let out a long slow breath. He must have nodded or something because Cindy smiled up at him, and it seemed the arrangement was final.
'Hey,' she soothed, moving to Anneliese's side and rubbing her back. 'He's my big brother, Annie. The one guy you can trust is Steve. He'll look after you. There's no need to worry.'
'I'm not worried.' Anneliese cleared her throat, her eyes reverting to that familiar frigid blue. 'Thanks all the same, but I don't need a passenger cluttering up the journey with unnecessary conversation. Nor do I need someone holding my hand and tucking me into bed at night.'
Steve blinked at the image. 'I'm not the talkative type.' As for the rest Their eyes met and he could've sworn they were seeing the same image. Two naked bodies sliding over crisp white sheets, her long legs gripping his hips, impatient feminine sighs filling the air
She averted her eyes, biting down on her bottom lip as the flush in her cheeks spread to her neck.
Stick to the matter at hand, Steve. And Cindy was right. The girl needed a bodyguard. If he didn't offer Resigned to his fate, he set his plate down. 'I have a few security systems to install up north and some prospective clients to see. If you're worried about space, I travel light. I can send the equipment I need by air to Brisbane and ' He paused at a sudden ruckus emanating from the laundry. 'What the heck is that noise?'
'Fred. My magpie. Cindy's going to babysit him for me while I'm away.' Anneliese tipped up her chin. 'I'm not going to Brisbane. I'm going to Surfers.'
He smiled at her cool disdain. 'My timetable's flexible and Brisbane's only an hour's drive farther on.'
Cindy hugged Anneliese. 'I'd rest so much easier with Steve going, too, and knowing you were in safe hands.'
Steve hitched a shoulder inside his flannel shirt and tucked his 'safe' hands in the back pockets of his jeans.
Anneliese's nostrils flared as she inhaled a deep breath, then she looked at Steve and said, 'Very well. Wednesday. And I want to get an early start. 6:00 a.m.'
He held her gaze, saw doubts and schemes stir in the depths, but he only nodded. 'See you at your place at five forty-five. My mobile number.' Without breaking eye contact, he reached into his pocket and withdrew his business card, set it on the table in front of her: Angel-Shield Security Systems. 'In case there's a change of plan.'
One hand rose to her throat, drawing his attention to the way her breasts rose and fell as if she was having difficulty catching her breath. She pushed up from the table with a mumbled, 'Excuse me '
Anneliese barely got the words past her lips while her gaze remained locked with Steve's. Her feet stayed glued to the floor for what seemed endless moments before she could unfreeze her brain, order her legs to move and escape to the sanctuary of Cindy's en suite bathroom.
Breathless, she leaned back against the door. Her legs still felt weak, her hands clammy as she slid them over the front of her trousers.
Steve Anderson. Her best friend's brother. Worse, the man she tried her utmost to avoid. Why did he have to turn up right now?
Since the night of her twenty-first party she'd managed mostlyto give him a wide berth, which made the memory of the last few moments all the more intense. She blinked, but his image was still there, lounging insolently between her eyes. Six-foot-plus of disarming man in faded black jeans and hiking boots.
He had hair the colour of teak and permanently in need of a trim, dark eyes, tanned skin. Still wearing his old padded vesta sleeveless, shapeless black thing with a red logo of some car manufacturer or other on the back.
Did he ever take it off? No. She didn't want to think about him taking it off. Because then she'd start thinking about that soft flannel shirt beneath and how it would feel if she touched it. Touched him. Right there in that V of flesh where a few masculine hairs curled over the collar.
She bit back a moan, moved to the basin and wrenched on the tap, letting the cold water flow over her hands. She'd rather die before she succumbed to that temptation. When she needed a partner for social occasions the men she associated with treated her with respect, dropping her home with a chaste kiss at the door. As she expected. As she preferred, she reminded herself.
Steve Anderson wouldn't stop at the chaste kiss. Or the front door.
She had an even more disturbing feeling that she wouldn't try to stop him either.
He was dangerous.
His deep voice vibrated all the way up the passage and through the bathroom door. She heard Cindy's laugh, then silence. She breathed a sigh of relief.
She flicked water over her neck and checked her hair but avoided looking too closely at her face, afraid of what she'd seetell-tale flushed cheeks and too-wide eyes that would confirm what she'd spent more than the past three years denying: for some inexplicable reason Steve Anderson called to her on some primal level. Inexplicable because why she'd be attracted to someone who changed women as often as he changed underwear, she didn't have a clue.
So she had no intention of letting him accompany her halfway across the country. She was leaving Tuesday. Tomorrow. Staying one day ahead. 'Sorry, Cindy,' she murmured. 'I don't care how trustworthy you think your brother is, or how concerned you are for me.'
Discovering the real Anneliese, taking charge of her life was something she needed to do alone. Avoiding hot-looking men that unbalanced her equilibrium while she searched was another.
Only a few stars pricked a sky heavy with clouds as Anneliese loaded the last bag into her car early Tuesday morning and closed the rear door on the hatchback.
She turned at the familiar name, her heart aching at the sight of her father in his striped pyjamas framed by the light spilling from the hallway onto the veranda. His greying hair stood up in spikes, his breath fogged the crisp pre-dawn air.
'Daddy, it's freezing and you haven't got your dressing gown on. Go back inside. I told you last night I wouldn't leave without saying goodbye. Go on, Dad,' she said gently. 'I'll be there in a minute.' As she watched him shuffle back inside guilt flooded her and she considered forgetting the whole thing. Until five weeks ago her life had been on track, her world safe and secure. She could never have imagined leaving the sanctuary of her parents' love and the only home she'd ever known to travel seventeen hundred kilometres to a remote place she'd never seen.
But that safe, secure world had crashed.
Her whole life had been a lie.
Her parents, the two people she'd trusted, who'd taught her that truth was gold, had lied to her. Betrayed her. Lying by omission was still a lie. She owed it to herself to uncover it all before she talked to her father.
She found him in the kitchen emptying the teapot to make a cup of tea. 'Let me do that.' Taking the pot from his hands, she opened the tea caddy and dumped in two scoops of leaves. 'Remember, I've cooked up a dozen meals. They're labelled and in the freezer for you. I've done all the ironing and stocked the pantry.'