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Now she knew what E.T. must have felt like—alone and abandoned, light years away from what was loved and familiar, on a planet that seemed totally alien and unwelcoming. No wonder he'd sought refuge in Elliott's garage. Right now, Maya wished she could find a handy empty or darkened room to hide away in. One glance along the burnished candle-lit table at the high-octane guests, the reek of class and money, merely confirmed what she already knew to be true—she didn't fit in. A 'fish out of water,' that was what she was. But the truth was she didn't want to fit in.
Up until now her temporary jobs as an admin assistant had been pretty problem-free. But for the past few weeks her agency had asked her to work for a PR agency—Maya's worst nightmare as far as employment went. As the cut-glass accents rose and fell all around her, the scent of social snobbery in the air as distinct as Chanel No. 5, she knew why she resisted being part of such a phoney world.
She'd been raised by a father who'd all but sold his soul to perpetuate a similar lavish lifestyle and glean the dubious respect of such people, and in pursuit of it he had sacrificed everything that had once meant something to him. His talent, money, self-respect and once good reputation had been squandered and degraded as he lost his grip on reality and the values he'd once so fiercely upheld. And as he'd sunk lower and lower into a pit of self-loathing and regret for what he'd done, it had only been a matter of time before he took the ultimate terrible step.
The devastating memory killed her appetite. Now the food on her plate held little temptation for her, and even knowing it had been specially created in a Michelin-starred restaurant for the purpose of the occasion was no incentive. Along with the dinner had come the services of one of the restaurant's top chefs, supported by a small team of staff to supervise its plating and serving. As was his usual style, her flamboyant boss, Jonathan Faraday, had spared no expense in displaying the growing success of his well-known PR company.
Clamping down on the persistent little flutter in her belly that urged her to get the hell out of there while she still had her pride and dignity intact, Maya lifted her gaze determinedly to the urbane silver-haired man sitting opposite and gave him the brightest smile she could muster.
Bad move, Maya. His startled hazel gaze flashed an invitation in return, and with a sinking feeling she knew he thought she'd given him the green light at last.
Hell's bells! What was she supposed to do now? Because it paid well, she didn't want to lose her job, but neither did she want to sleep with her boss to keep it. If only his super-efficient, elegant PA Caroline hadn't been called to the hospital bed of her dying mother-in-law at the last minute Maya would be safe at home now, dressed in comfy sweater and leggings; settling herself down on her sofa in readiness to view the film she'd hired for the weekend, with a bowl of tortilla chips, some salsa dip and a glass of wine on hand to heighten the experience.
Instead, she'd squeezed herself into a black velvet gown that was at least half a size too small, with her breasts crammed into a bodice so tight that it gave her the cleavage of a pneumatic glamour model, while her generously applied mascara made her eyes smart because it was new and she was obviously allergic to it. And all this discomfort because Jonathan had insisted she attend the function at his house in Caroline's place. It didn't matter that Maya was just a lowly temporary assistant from the less glamorous echelons of the company—Jonathan had had his eye on her for some time. He could see she had talent, determination, he'd said, smiling—and he could see she was destined for better things… He could see this was a good opportunity to get into her knickers…
Sighing heavily, she absently pushed the artistically arranged concoction of cranberries and parma-ham round her plate with a fork. When the blatant caress of a shoeless foot stroked up and down her ankle Maya almost jumped out of her skin. Tucking her feet indignantly beneath her chair, feeling searing heat hotter than a blacksmith's smithy assail her cheeks, she stared across the table at her suave, supremely confident boss. Bad enough she'd had an inkling that she might have to fight him off if he had too much to drink. Jonathan could more or less be counted on to chase anything in a skirt when his rampaging testosterone had been even more boosted by alcohol, but Maya hadn't expected he would be quite so blatant about it from the off. And all he'd had so far was one glass of champagne as the guests had been welcomed into the drawing room. In the name of self-preservation she had deliberately kept an eye on his intake—so she was surprised and more than a little rattled that he seemed intent on staking a claim right away. Damn it, she shouldn't even be here!
'Something wrong, Miss Hayward?' Jonathan swirled the ruby-red wine that a passing waiter had just poured into his glass, leaning nonchalantly back in his grand Regency-style chair to enjoy the view as his shapely young employee rose hastily to her feet.
'No. I'm fine.'
Why did he have to notice everything she did? Was she forced to announce to the entire table that she had a sudden pressing need to visit the Ladies' Room? Why couldn't he just talk to the stunning blonde sitting next to him? The woman had been batting her eyelashes at him practically since they'd sat down. But apparently in the bedroom department Jonathan Faraday didn't give women his own age the time of day—no matter how beautiful. He liked them young, so she'd heard on the grapevine. Bad luck for Maya that she'd only just turned twenty-five…
'I'll—I'll be back shortly.'
Escaping before he could delay her further—or, worse, find some nefarious reason to accompany her— Maya found herself hurrying down corridors, the echo of her heels hitting the parquet floor mocking her as she struggled to find her bearings. Oh, why had she agreed to this farce? Now she was stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, dependent on her lech of a boss for a lift home—and not until midday tomorrow, if what Caroline had said was true. Apparently Jonathan was in no hurry to get back to London until mid-afternoon at least. Maya's head swam a little. The glass of champagne she'd had had been a dangerous lapse in judgement. She should have insisted on orange juice or mineral water. If she was going to get out of this little escapade with her virtue intact it was essential she kept a clear head—so no more alcohol for her, even if Jonathan insisted.
Her green eyes flicked hopefully round. She could have sworn there was a bathroom round here somewhere… Pushing open twin cream doors with ornate gilded panels, she found herself in a long, high-ceilinged room, its panelling painted in tastefully calming hues of pink and cream. A welcoming fire blazed in the huge marble fireplace, tempting her to stay and re-establish some of her lost composure.
Gazing round, Maya was momentarily distracted by the elaborate array of expensive-looking art that adorned the walls, and the seductive glow of antique lamps turned down low that cleverly created the illusion that the large, elegant room was actually more intimately proportioned than it really was. Succumbing to necessity, she gave in to the luxury of breathing out completely. Her tight bodice almost cracked a rib, while her lush breasts appeared in dire peril of escaping their velvet confines any time soon.
What had possessed her to wear such an outrageous dress? Okay, Caroline had told her the dress code was black tie and evening wear, but surely she knew that, when she'd borrowed the garment from her smaller-built friend Sadie, she was courting trouble by wearing it? Especially when Jonathan Faraday was around!
'If Jonathan's the confectioner, then clearly you've got to be the candy.'
At the sound of an amused yet obviously mocking male voice, Maya spun round in shock, mortified that she'd been observed when she had stupidly imagined herself to be alone. Her hand flew self-consciously to her cleavage, her teeth worrying at her plump lower lip as she stared at the man who suddenly rose from the high-winged chair turned towards the fireplace. Why hadn't she noticed he was there straight away? A shiver of embarrassment and frustration sprinted up her spine. Staring transfixed at the imposing stranger, she felt his electrifying gaze welding her to a hypnotised standstill.
'And you are… ?' Not that she really wanted to know, when inside she was silently fuming at his impertinent assumption that she had somehow been invited purely for decoration.
'I see you haven't done your homework, Miss…?'
Of all the arrogant…!
'I work for Mr Faraday.'
'Of course you do. You work for me too in that dress, if I may say so?'
Scorching embarrassment immobilised her. Blast that stupid dress! And blast her eye-catching curves, when life would have been so much easier if she'd simply been straight up and down and flat-chested.
'If that was meant as a compliment, then forgive me if I don't take it as one. It's not at all flattering to be viewed as some kind of decorative object… as if I don't possess even a modicum of intelligence! I've met people like you before, and I'm…' Maya paused to take a breath, before biting her tongue. 'Yes, well… I'd better not say any more. Time to go, I think.'
'What do you mean, you've met people like me before?'
'Oh, but I do mind. Explain yourself.'
It was too late to rescind her comment, and Maya sensed her shoulders drop with resignation and not a little annoyance. 'Enough to say I'mnotpart of the floor show or entertainment for the guests, however it might look. I didn't even want to be here in the first place!'
The stranger's well-cut lips parted in a puzzled smile. 'This is getting more and more interesting. Why didn't you want to be here, Miss…?'
It was difficult to say with any sense of accuracy what colour his eyes were in the muted glow of the lamps—it sufficed to register that they burned with a fierce, concentrated gleam across the distance between them, keeping Maya prisoner even though she desperately wanted to flee. Beneath the bold regard of that disturbing glance she shifted uncomfortably. Was it her, or had the room suddenly acquired the temperature of some tropical oasis?
'I'm only here because of work. All I meant was this isn't my kind of scene and neither are the people. I apologise if I've offended you in any way with my frankness.'
'Apology accepted. I'm not offended at all. Just intrigued.'
'I'd still better go.'
'I wish you wouldn't.' The man walked towards her and a sharp spasm of recognition jolted through Maya's insides. Blaise Walker—movie actor turned lauded and brilliant playwright. No wonder he had made that dig about her not doing her homework. He was the guest of honour, no less! The guest that Jonathan had announced to the table a mere ten minutes ago as being unavoidably detained.
Now her face burned for another reason. She had just been bordering on rude to the man, and no doubt Jonathan would hear all about it. But what was Blaise doing, hiding out in here? Her growing unease deepened. One, because the man was even more devastat-ingly attractive in the flesh than in his photographs, and two, because she didn't really think her boss would like the idea of a mere admin assistant like her fraternising with such an important client—let alone verbally putting him in his place! She should make herself scarce…now.
'Well, I have to go. I'm expected back any time now.'
'Of course… it's no surprise that a woman like you would be missed if you were away too long.'
'Look… I didn't mean to disturb you in any way. I was just trying to find the Ladies' Room, but I'm afraid I—I got lost.'
'This is a big house.'
Did he think she hadn't noticed? It was an extremely impressive one too—a real showpiece. The kind to which her father would have relished inviting his illustrious clientele—which had included rock stars, film actors and art sycophants, who had bought his paintings during his short but infamous career—for drinks and other 'recreational' refreshments. The minuscule square footage of her studio apartment would fit into it at least a hundred times over, she was sure.
Renewing her intention to make herself scarce, Maya moved back towards the still ajar twin doors.
'Anyway, like I said… I'm sorry for the intrusion.'
'An apology is hardly necessary when the pleasure was all mine. Perhaps when you've visited the Ladies' Room you might consider coming back for a while, to give us a chance to get properly acquainted?'
She hadn't meant to sound quite so adamant, but any further explanation somehow got stuck in her throat. The way Blaise Walker was surveying her—disturbing eyes mocking in that haunting angular face of his, tarnished gold hair darkly glinting against the startling white of his shirt collar—Maya was finding it seriously difficult to think straight.