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Time stood still for no man. And Sophy Braithwaite didn't stand still either.
She tapped her toes on the concrete floor. Slowly at first, just releasing a smidge of the energy pushing under her skin, but after a while the small rapping sound sped up.
The receptionist had directed her straight up the stairs to the officethe sign on the door ensured she'd found the one the woman meant. So she was in the right place at the right time.
She turned and studied the pictures on the wall beside her. Picturesque scenes of Italian countrysideshe figured they were Cara's choice. Her assessment and appreciation took less than a minute. Then she looked again at the monstrosity masquerading as the desk. Good thing she wasn't into corporate espionage or fraud. She'd had ample time to rifle through files for sensitive info. Mind you, given the mess it was in, she wouldn't even find anything as useful as a pen in there. The papers were piled high in dangerously unstable towers. The unopened mail had long since filled the in-tray and now cascaded across the computer keyboard. Cara hadn't been exaggerating when she'd said she'd left it in a mess. If anything she'd been understating the case.
'I've just not had my head there and it all got away from me. I feel so terrible now with this happening,' she'd said.
'This' was the early arrival of her baby. Six weeks premature, the tiny sweetie was still in hospital and Cara was hollow-eyed and anxious. The last thing she needed was to be worrying about the part-time admin job she did for a local charity.
Sophy's irritation with the situation spiked. Where was he, then? This Lorenzo Hallsupposed hotshot of the wine industry and darling of the fundraising divasthe CEO of this chaos?
'Lorenzo's so busy at the moment. With Alex and Dani away he's dealing with everything on his own.' Cara had sounded so concerned for him when Sophy's sister, Victoria, had handed the phone to her. 'It would be just brilliant if you could go in there and stop him worrying about the Whistle Fund at least.'
Well, Sophy wasn't here to stop Lorenzo Hall from worrying, she was here to stop Cara worrying.
She realised she'd been subconsciously tapping in time to a rhythmic thunking sound coming from a distance. As if someone were using a hammer or something but speeding up, then stopping, then starting again. She shook her head free of the annoyance and looked around at the chaos again. It would take a bit of time to sort through. She wished she could say no. But then, she never said no. Not when someone asked for help like this. And didn't they all know it. She'd arrived back in New Zealand less than a month ago, yet her family had managed to fill her schedule to bursting already. But she'd let them, passively agreeing to it all. So much for becoming more assertive and ring fencing even just some time for her own work.
She knew they saw no change, and wasn't she acting as if there weren'twith her 'yes, of course' here and 'sure' there? Tacitly acknowledging she had nothing better to do. Or, at least, nothing as important as what they were asking.
But she did.
While she loved to help them out, there was something else she loved to do. Her heart beat faster as she thought of it as 'work'. She badly wanted to prove it could be just that. But to make a go of it, she needed time.
So she really didn't want to be standing here waiting for anybodycertainly not some guy who couldn't even seem to organise his own temp. The same boss who had Cara calling her from her hospital bed asking if she could help out. If her help really was needed, then okay, but she wasn't going to wait here for another twenty minutes. She glanced at her watch again. Ordinarily looking at it brought a tingle of pleasurefine little vintage piece that it was. She'd found it in a flea market in South London one day. With a new old strap she'd found at another market and a trip to the watch doctor, it worked beautifully. It was definitely not running fast.
The thudding impinged into her brain again, stirring a dormant memory from school days.
No. Surely not?
She stood, walked across the office and right round behind the desk to the window. Looked straight down to the asphalt yard at the back of the warehouse. She inhaled some much-needed cool air into her lungs.
But yes. Basketball.
Lorenzo Hallshe just knew it was himout there having himself some fun. If he'd been playing with even one other person she might have understood itthat he'd wanted to finish the game before seeing her. But there was no opponent to beat. He was playing alonewhile she was waiting for a scheduled meeting with him. Long minutes up in his officeand it was for his benefit.
The irritation rose to a rolling boil. How come no one realised her time was precious too? She walked out of the office, her high heels clipping quickly down the stairs. She passed the receptionist, who was running in the other direction with the cord of her phone headset trailing after her.
'Will Mr Hall be long, do you think?' Sophy asked with extreme politeness.
The receptionist stopped, but looked harassed. 'He's not up there?'
Sophy gave the woman a cool stare. She didn't know? Wasn't she his receptionist? Where was the efficiency in this placeoff on a holiday to Mars? She inhaled and crisped up even more. 'Obviously not.'
The frown on the receptionist's face deepened. 'I'm sure I saw him earlier. You could look and see if he's up on the third floor or try out the back.' With that she was gone, hurrying to do whatever it was that was so urgent.
Sophy continued down the stairs and went through the doorway behind Reception. This was a meeting that had been arranged two days ago. He might be the newly crowned king of the wine exporters, but for the life of her she couldn't figure out how he'd managed it. Not when he couldn't even make it to a meeting on time. She found what had to be the door leading out to the yard. She paused for a second, squared her shoulders and then turned the handle, pulling the heavy wood back.
From what she'd seen at the window upstairs she'd known what she was about to facebut she hadn't accounted for the effect it would have on her up close. She swallowed, momentarily speechless.
He had his back to hera mightily broad back it was too, and very bronzed. Well, it would be from all the time he obviously spent out hereshirtless.
The fire that blazed through her was surely all due to anger.
The baseboard and basket were on a stand on the far side of the asphalt square. He had the ball in hand, feet apart, his knees slightly bent as he readied to take the shot.
Sophy waited for the exact moment. Just as his body moved to shoot the ball, she calledraising her normal volume more than a fraction, and using what her speech and drama teacher had referred to as 'the tone'.
Needless to say, he didn't make the basket. Sophy smiled. But then, in an instant, it died on her lips.
Even with the three or so metres between them she could feel the scorching heat of him. He turned his head, looked her overa quick, slicing glance with the darkest eyes she'd ever seen. Then he turned back to the wretched basket.
That had been all he needed to sum her up? Sophy wasn't used to being dismissed so quickly. She might not have lived up to her family's stellar success in the legal fraternity, but she did okay in the appearance stakes. Always immaculate. Always appropriate. Presentation had been drilled into her for so long it was second nature now. So she knew she looked more than acceptable in her baby-blue linen skirt and pressed white shirt. Her lipstick was muted but smooth and her face wasn't shiny. Her one-style-only hair would be in placeshe didn't even have to try for that to happen.
The ball had bounced a couple of times. He barely had to move to retrieve it. Once it was back in his broad hands he turned and gave her another lookeven more pointed. Then he turned back to face the baseboard, took careful aim and replayed the shotlanding it this time.
Sophy would have turned and walked if she wasn't too angry to move. So that was the way of it, huh? His little game of by-myself-basketball was more important than a meeting scheduled with her. She'd heard nothing but positives about this guy's charitable organisation. Had heard the rumours about his own background and his meteoric risemarvellous, wasn't it, people said, that someone with a background like that could become such a success?
Well, Sophy wasn't about to patronise the selfish jerk. 'Are we meeting any time soon?' She refused to offer to come back at another timebit back the conciliatory words by pushing her jaws together. She wasn't going to put herself out at all for him.
The ball had bounced back to him again. He tossed it to the side and walked towards her. His jeans sat low on his hips. He wore them with no belt and she saw a glimpse of a waistbandbriefs or boxers? She shouldn't be wondering. But she couldn't stop looking.
There was no fat beneath his skin, just lithe muscles that rippled as he walked. She managed to force her gaze a fraction higher, skimming over the dusting of masculine hair, the dark nipples. He had straight, broad shoulders. Sleek curving muscles stretched down his arms. And all over was the sheen of sweatburnishing the smooth, sun bronzed skin.
She found she was mirroring his slight breathlessness. His chest was rising and falling that bit quickly, that bit jerkily, and her own felt tight as she studied him. He had an amazing torsothe strength, the undeniable masculinity had her spellbound. Her gaze coasted downwards again.
He took two more stepsbringing him too close. Startled, she looked up as he loomed over her. Realised that with a narrowed, keen gaze he was watching the way she was looking him up and down.
She met his stare, matched it, refusing to let her embarrassment at being caught ogling burn her skin red. But then, when he knew he had her attention, he let his gaze strip down every inch of her body. She actually felt the way his attention lit on her neck, on the small V of exposed skin on her chest, on the curve of her breasts
She fought harder to stop the blush and felt her anger resurge. But she probably deserved it. Hadn't she just done this to him? But not intentionallynot provocatively. She just hadn't realised quite how obvious she'd been or how long she'd been staringher brain had gone AWOL while her eyes feasted.
But his was a deliberate, blatantly sexual action.
Her toes curled in the tips of her heeled pumps. The rest of her wanted to shrivel tooso she could disappear. And she used the anger to block that other message striving to move from brain to bodythe desire that wanted to unfurl and scurry through her veins.
'You must be Sophy.' He gestured back to his mini basketball court. 'I was thinking. Lost track of time.'
Well, that fell way too short for an apology.
'My time is valuable to me,' she asserted vocally for the first time in her life. 'I don't like it being wasted.'
Certainly not by a half naked man. Not like this anyway.
Those black, bottomless eyes met hers. The colour rose a little higher on his cheekbones. She wasn't sure if it was from exertion, embarrassment or anger. She suspected the latter.
'Of course,' he said smoothlytoo quietly. 'I won't do it again.'
Something had kindled in his eyes as he'd added that. Something she didn't care to define. As it was she felt herself flushingunable to stop it nowas if she were the one in the wrong. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Stole another quick glance at his torso and then aimed to concentrate on the concrete.
'You never seen a man sweat before, Sophy?' His soft question hit her in the gut.
The crisp spring morning suddenly got a whole lot hotter. She tried to say something. Couldn't. The dry irony in his voice just devastated her.
He turned away from her. 'Want to play a little one on one?' he asked. 'I find it helps me focus. You might find it helps you too.'
Oh, so she needed help with focus? Heaven help her she did.
'It's also good for burning excess energy.'
Now that was said with deliberate innuendo. He was trying to tip her balanceas if he weren't doing it already with his sheer physicality which was on display. With considerable effort she pulled herself together. Well, she could do a little innuendo too. His few words could flame, but her cool delivery would crush. 'I'm obviously overdressed.'
His eyes widened fractionally, before he replied calmly, 'Easily fixed.'
She lifted her brows very slowly, determined to stay cool. 'You want me to strip?'
He laughed then, his whole face breaking into an absolute charmer of a smile. Sophy lifted her fingers to her mouth to stop her jaw from gaping in surprise. His whole demeanour changedlike quicksilverfrom seriously brooding to sparkling good humour. The flash was utterly intriguing and devastatingly attractive.
'It would be fair, don't you think?' he said. 'I mean, you have me at a disadvantage.'
'You put yourself at a disadvantage.' She was even more breathless now. And privately she thought his semi-nudity a huge benefit to himhow to fuzzle the minds of your business opponents in one easy step. She angled away from himtrying to recover her equilibrium. She got a clear view of the fence and saw one section was covered with a huge bit of graffiti. The colours leapt out, almost 3D, in bold blocks. An image of a manlike an ancient statuewith vibrant shades of blue leaping out from behind and an indecipherable word shooting up from one side. She'd never have expected it; the reception area she'd walked through had been incredibly slickit was only the office upstairs that had been a total mess. Now there was thiswhat many people would consider an eyesore.
He walked in front of her line of vision and picked up the ball again, spinning it in his hands. 'We can talk through the details at the same time.'