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'Mark, step away from the flamingo and get out of the pond. Please.'
Phoebe heard the note of desperation in her voice and prayed it would be enough to penetrate the alcohol-fogged brain of the man who was lurching around the pond and brandishing a bottle of champagne.
'Darling,' slurred Mark as he swung round and threw her a lopsided grin while water lilies slapped around his knees. 'You keep trying to persuade me to get out, but I don't want to.'
He waggled his finger at her and her spirits sank. No amount of cajoling or threatening had had the slightest effect so why on earth had she thought desperation would have worked?
'That much is obvious,' she muttered and racked her brains for a solution. Dealing with problems was part of her job, but right now she was stumped.
'I have a suggestion.' He swayed wildly and Phoebe's heart skipped a beat.
Unless he revealed that he planned to take himself off somewhere quiet and sober up, preferably on the other side of London, she didn't think she wanted to hear it. 'What is it?'
Mark spread his arms wide and grinned. 'Why don't you jump in and join me? The water's great and I'd like to introduce you to my new friend.' He turned and stumbled after the flamingo, which had hopped out of range and was now preening its feathers.
Phoebe shivered and sighed and wondered what she'd done to deserve this. It had clearly been far too much to hope that this evening might remain trouble free, but for a moment everything had been going so well.
So the opulent crimson and silver theme that ran throughout the bar wasn't really to her taste, and the huge chandeliers that sprinkled light over the glittering throng were, in her opinion, totally over the top. And as for allowing birds to wander freely around the gardens six storeys above street level, well, that, as this little episode had proved, was a recipe for disaster, however unique and fashionable.
However, none of that mattered. Not one little bit.
All that mattered was that the San Lorenzo Roof Gardens was the trendiest new venue in town. It was the place to hold a pre-launch party for a hip young handbag designer, and it was virtually impossible to book.
But she'd done it. She'd spent weeks flattering the unyielding Mr Bogoni until he'd cracked and agreed to let her hire the venue, and had then poured hours of meticulous planning and endless preparation into ensuring that this would be a party that people would gossip about for months.
Inside the bar buzzed with a subtle air of excitement and expectation, fuelled by exquisite canapés and the finest champagne. Jo's gemstone-encrusted handbags sat high on their individually spotlit pedestals, refracting the light like multicoloured glitter balls, and the star of the show herself was mingling among the one hundred glamorous guests and chatting to the carefully selected journalists as if she'd been doing it for years instead of an hour.
Jo Douglas, Phoebe's first and currently only client, was heading for the stratosphere, and the fledgling Jackson Communications would soar right alongside her.
So she was not going to stand back and let Jo's boyfriend ruin an evening she'd worked so hard to put together.
Phoebe's jaw set. There was only one thing for it. She had to get rid of Mark. Discreetly and quickly before someone with a camera decided to step out for a breath of fresh air. And as the bar was getting warmer by the minute, she didn't have any time to lose.
Right. Phoebe broke a twig off an overhanging branch and stuck it between her teeth. She twisted her hair into a thick rope, wound it deftly onto the top of her head and secured it with the twig. Then she slipped out of her shoes and wriggled to hitch her dress up her thighs.
Taking a deep fortifying breath and trying not to think about what might lurk beneath the surface of the water, she gave herself a quick shake, straightened her spine and set her sights on her target.
'Do you need a hand?'
The deep voice came from behind her and Phoebe shrieked, jumped almost a foot into the air and nearly pitched headlong into the pond. She spun round, her hand flying to her throat and her heart thundering as a large shadowy figure leaning against a tree swam into vision. 'Who are you?' she squeaked when she was able to breathe again.
'Someone who thinks you look like you could do with some help.' He pushed himself off the tree and gestured to Mark as he took a step towards her.
Phoebe's hand automatically shot out to stop him coming any closer and then she dropped it, feeling faintly foolish. Wherever he'd sprung from he was hardly likely to be going to attack her. 'If leaping out of nowhere and scaring me witless is your idea of helping, thank you, but no.'
He stopped and tilted his head. 'Sure?'
'Quite sure,' she said, resisting the urge to glance down to check the ground beneath her feet. His lazy drawl was having the oddest effect on her equilibrium. Either that, or London was in the unlikely grip of an earthquake. 'What are you doing out here anyway?'
'Admiring the scenery.'
Somehow she knew he wasn't referring to the landscaping and she felt a kick of something in the pit of her stomach. 'You should be inside admiring the handbags.'
'Not really my thing.'
'Then perhaps you're at the wrong party.' Phoebe frowned. Come to think of it, he hadn't actually answered her question. She'd met and ticked off everyone on the guest list, and none of them had had such an impressive outline. So who the hell was he?
Phoebe ran her gaze over him, momentarily forgetting what was going on behind her, and found herself wondering what he looked like. Part of her longed for him to step into the light so she could get a proper look at him and see if his looks matched up to his voice. The other toyed with the idea of summoning the bouncers.
Because whoever he was, this was a private party and if he wasn't on the guest list then he was gatecrashing. In fact, she thought, pulling herself together, he could well have sneaked in while she'd been in Mr Bogoni's office, staring at the fuzzy CCTV feed and simultaneously trying to swallow her astonishment, placate the volatile Italian and ignore his mutterings about suing for damages should anything happen to the flamingo.
'I'm at exactly the right party. And it's turned out to be far more interesting than I could possibly have imagined.'
Phoebe frowned and was just about to demand his invitation when she heard a series of splashes behind her. A shower of cool water hit the backs of her legs and she stifled a squeal of shock. Mark must have got bored with the flamingo, thank goodness, and decided to come over and investigate this latest development.
'I suspect the show's nearly over.'
'That's a shame. I was enjoying it.'
Despite the warmth of the night she shivered. 'There's far better entertainment inside. Drinks, music, dancing. Much more exciting.'
'I'm inclined to disagree,' he said softly and her heart thumped. 'Besides, I've spent the past sixteen hours either in a car or on a plane. At this stage of the evening fresh air is a novelty.'
'Plenty of fresh air on the other side of the bar. As you can see, I'm afraid I have things to attend to.'
As soon as Mark stumbled to within reaching distance she'd pull him out and bundle him off herself.
'Do you really think you can handle this on your own?'
If she'd been able to see his face properly she was sure she'd find a patronising smile hovering at his lips and Phoebe bristled. She'd been handling things on her own for years. 'Of course.'
He folded his arms over his chest and shrugged. 'In that case I'll stay out of your way.'
'Thank you,' she said crisply and turned back.
Mark was far closer that she'd thought and was waving the bottle of champagne even more wildly than before. All he had to do was trip and he'd land right on top of her.
It was now or never. Phoebe reached out to grab him but he reeled back, teetering as if balancing on the edge of a precipice and then pitched forward. Flailing around while desperately trying to cling onto his balance, his arm and the hand holding the bottle swung round in her direction. An arc of champagne sprayed through the air. Phoebe let out a little cry and jerked back, her hands flying to her head.
Oh no, not her hair. Please not her hair.
She didn't have time to recover and pull Mark out. A split second later a pair of large hands clamped round her waist and shoved her to one side. She yelped in shock and watched in stunned appal as the shadowy stranger grabbed Mark by the T-shirt and hauled him out of the water.
'Hey, what are you doing?' Mark yelled, splashing frantically as the bottle of champagne landed in the water with a plop.
Good question, thought Phoebe dazedly, her skin beneath her dress burning where his hands had gripped her.
'Taking out the rubbish,' he snarled and leaned in very close. 'Men like you belong behind bars.'
'What are you talking about?' Mark spluttered. 'Get off me. You can't do this. I'll sue.'
'Go right ahead,' he growled.
'You'll be sorry.'
'I doubt it. Wait here,' he snapped at Phoebe, and then dragged Mark, kicking and struggling, across the garden.
For a moment Phoebe had no choice in the matter. She stood frozen to the spot, droplets of icy water clinging to her bare legs, her heart hammering while shock reverberated around her and the outraged sound of Mark's protests and threats rang in her ears.
In dumb stupefaction she watched the two men disappear round the corner and struggled to make sense of what had just gone on. Maybe she'd been hurled into a third-rate action film, because in reality men didn' t just leap out of nowhere, elbow their way into the action and then march off leaving chaos trailing in their wake like a brief but devastating tornado. At least, not in her experience.
As her shock receded the potential consequences of this little episode filtered into her head. How dared he barge in like that? When she'd told him in no uncertain terms that she was in control of the situation. Did he have any idea of the damage he could have done?
And then barking at her to wait. What did he expect her to do? Hang around like some sort of obedient minion? Hah, she thought, bending down to pick up her shoes. As if. She had to go and find out whether any journalistic or photographic prying eyes had caught what had just happened and if necessary execute a hasty damage-limitation exercise.
Who did he think he was anyway, creeping up on her like that and scaring the living daylights out of her? And manhandling Mark like some sort of brutish Neanderthal.
Kind of attractive though. That single-mindedness. That decisiveness. That strength…
Phoebe slapped her hand against her forehead. No no no no no. That was so wrong on so many levels she didn't know where to start. Focus. That was what she needed. Focus. And her heels.
As she searched for something sturdy to lean against while she put her shoes back on again Phoebe's skin suddenly prickled all over.
Her head shot round and her eyes narrowed in on the man striding in her direction, alone. Tall, broad-shouldered and flexing his hands, he moved in a sort of intensely purposeful way that had her stomach clenching.
In irritation, she decided, straightening and preparing herself for confrontation. Definitely irritation.
As his long strides closed the distance between them she could see that his face was as dark as the suit that moulded to his body. But what he had to glower about she had no idea. If anyone had the right to be furious it was her.
Phoebe's heart began to thud. Forget the shoes. Damage limitation could wait. Adrenalin surged through her. 'You frightened the life out of me,' she said, when he got within hissing distance, her voice low and tight with anger. 'Who are you and what on earth did you think you were doing?'
He didn't reply, merely took her arm and wheeled her off towards the pergola at the bottom of the wide stone steps that led up to the terrace. Phoebe had no option but to stagger after him, shoes dangling from her fingers as panic and shock flooded back into every bone in her body.
'Hang on,' she said, desperately trying to keep her voice down. 'You can't throw me out too. Ow!' The smooth paving stones had turned into sharp gravel, which dug into the soles of her feet.
He stopped, looked down as she hopped madly while trying to put her shoes back on and then, muttering a brief curse under his breath, swept her up into his arms. Phoebe let out a tiny squeal as her shoulder slapped against a rock-hard chest. One of his hands planted itself on the side of her breast, the other wrapped around her bare thigh.
'Put me down!' she whispered furiously, her legs bouncing with every step he took as she tried to tug down her dress in a vain attempt to protect her modesty.
He stopped beneath a lantern and set her on her feet, her body brushing against his in the process. A flurry of tingles whizzed round her and she wobbled. He wound one arm round her waist and clamped her against him.
'I have no intention of throwing you out,' he said roughly, raking his gaze over her face.
'So let me go.'
If anything, his arm tightened and Phoebe felt as if someone had plugged her into a socket. What else could explain the tingles and sparks that zapped through her? What else could account for the searing heat that swept along her veins, making her bones melt and turning her spine to water?
'My name is Alex and you should choose your boyfriends more carefully.'
At the icy restraint lacing his voice, Phoebe's eyes jerked to his and for a moment she forgot how to breathe.
Oh, dear God. His eyes were mesmerising. Grey. No, not just grey. Silver, rapidly darkening to slate, and fringed with the thickest eyelashes she'd ever seen on a man. Set beneath straight dark eyebrows and blazing down at her with fierce concern.
As she dragged her gaze over the planes of his face in much the same way as he was now doing to her Phoebe's mouth went dry and the blood in her veins grew hot and sluggish. He wasn't just handsome. He was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. But not in the pretty way the men who occupied her world were. This man looked like the sort of man who knew how to do, and probably did, the things that real men were supposed to do.