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Surely the run-up to Christmas wasn't meant to be like this? Driving rain, a bitter wind and everyone looking as though they could do murder. Children all over the world were opening the first little window of their Advent calendars today; there should be excitement and anticipation and a warm snuggly feeling for them at least, even if snow wasn't provided.
Rachel Ellington looked after the grim-faced mother with two screaming toddlers and a baby in a pushchair who had just elbowed her out of the way with such force it had hurt. And the harassed mother wasn't the only one with a face like thunder. The pavement was full of sullen schoolchildren with huge bags and even huger attitude; power-dressed commuters of both sexes hunched against the spray from passing traffic as they used their umbrellas like weapons; and a group of students jostling each other in a manner that suggested a fight might break out as they waited in a bus queue that stretched for ever.
Rachel glanced in the shop window she was passing and an enormous Father Christmas with a sack of gaily wrapped presents and a somewhat hideous grin stared back at her. It had been there since October, along with the fairy-lights and tinsel and Christmas tree.
Of course, that was half the trouble. The TV advertisements and shops and all levels of commerce began to whip up seasonal jollity so far in advance that by the beginning of December it was all used up. She grimaced as she realized she sounded just like her mother. But it was true, she thought, trying to ignore the drips of freezing water trickling down her neck. She'd forgotten her umbrella this morningagain.
She wouldn't go as far as her mother, who advocated a return to the days when the tree was dressed and decorations put up not an hour before Christmas Eve, and children should be presented with a stocking containing an orange, apple and nuts, along with a shiny coin and one present only, but there was something to be said for the old days when the latest 'must-have' toy costing an arm and a leg had been unheard of. And when a man saying 'I love you' meant more than just a nicety before getting you into bed.
She stood stock still as she realized what she'd just thought, causing major chaos for a moment as the people behind cannoned into her and each other.
Where had that little piece of cynicism sprung from? she asked herself as she apologised all round and started walking again. She was over Giles, she had been for months. And after the first caustic, devastating weeks in the summer when she had felt the whole world knew she'd been taken for a fool by the man she'd thought she'd be spending the rest of her life with, she'd become aware Giles had hurt her pride more than her heart. Which had caused her a few more sleepless nights. How could she imagine herself madly in love to the point of accepting his proposal of marriage one minute, and then be glad he was out of her life the next? It was positively scary when you thought about it.
Not that it had exactly been the next minute, she qualified silently. She'd endured a few hellish weeks before that had come about, crying herself to sleep each night and losing nearly a stone in weight, which had given her a scrawny alleycat look. Already too thin by her own estimation it had been the spur she'd needed to start eating again, and she'd indulged in chocolate eclairs and other calorie-packed treats by the bucketful until her modest curves were back. Jennie and Susan, her flatmates, had been green with envy, which had been infinitely preferable to their pity of the preceding weeks.
As she turned off the main thoroughfare into the maze of side streets that eventually led to the tiny mews in Kensington where her flat was situated, a gust of wind and rain almost blew her off her feet. She normally enjoyed the brisk fifteen-minute walk home from the office but tonight was an ordeal. She should have travelled by tube but she had an aversion to the underground at the best of times, and a rainy December day with damp bodies steaming and lethal umbrellas by the hundreds definitely wasn't the best of times to journey in one of the packed rush-hour trains.
By the time she turned the key in the lock of the door of the downstairs flat she'd shared with her two best friends since the three of them had left university five years before, she was soaked to the skin. Her hair was plastered to her scalp, her mascara had run in rivulets down her cold cheeks and she was frozen to the marrow. She wanted nothing more than to lie in a scalding-hot bath for an hour with a glass of wine and a good book, and as she was always home long before Jennie and Susan, there was no reason she shouldn't.
She almost fell into the small square hall and stood for a moment with her eyes shut. Today had been a foul day altogether. After leaving university with a very acceptable 2.1 in business studies and marketing, she had obtained a post as assistant to the marketing manager of a fast-food chain. The pay was excellent and she knew her strengths were a keen awareness of client needs and a very good business sense, along with a natural flair for organising and planning. Unfortunately, on the latest project the sales team had failed to adequately follow up their part of the master plan, but due to a catalogue of half-truths and downright lies, it had been she who'd been left with egg on her face when the whole job had collapsed.
Rachel pulled off her sodden coat and kicked off her shoes, the memory of her manager Jeff's face when he'd taken her to task earlier that afternoon humiliatingly vivid. He'd been livid, having had a roasting from the managing director himself, and hadn't listened to a word she'd said in her defence.
She had entered the marketing world knowing promotion could be fast, but her chosen career was not for the faint-hearted: pressures were intense and security was mostly non-existent. She had been earmarked to take on Jeff's role when he transferred to the northern branch of the company early in the new year, but whether that would happen now was anyone's guess.
She frowned fiercely. All in all, she wouldn't be sad to see the back of this year and Christmas was going to be an endurance test. She had met Giles at a daytime Christmas party her firm had held for clients past and present the previous year, and they'd had their first date that same evening. This Christmas was going to give rise to some unwelcome memories.
The deep male voice caused her to jump violently, and as an involuntary gasp left her lips, she looked up to see a tall, dark stranger standing in the doorway of the sitting room. Her heart thumping so hard she put a hand to her chest to contain it, she bit out, 'Who on earth are you and what are you doing in my flat?' as her mind raced. What was within reach to defend herself with? Only her handbag, and much as she loved the sweet little red bow bag Jennie and Susan had bought her for her last birthday, it was hardly the stuff to strike terror into a burglar's heart.
There had been a spate of break-ins in the area over the last months and always when the householders were at work. Only last week one occupant of the mews had returned home to find her place being ransacked and the assailant had turned very nasty.
'Hey, it's OK.' The male voice was lazy. 'Don't panic.'
As he moved a pace or two towards her, Rachel felt in her bag for her perfume. 'This is a pepper spray and you come one step closer and you're getting it in the face,' she grated with more aggression than she was feeling. In truth she was scared to death. He was so big and broad. She hadn't turned the hall light on when she'd come in and he'd clearly just put a lamp on in the sitting room because the chink of light coming through the half-open door was so dim it merely shrouded him in shadow. Nevertheless, she could see she'd stand no chance.
'Let me give you a tip,' he said mildly. 'If you're going to use something like pepper spray, it's best not to give a warning. The element of surprise is crucial.'
He was now so close she could see his features and she received her second shock of the evening. As burglars went, this one was to die for. She already knew he was tall and dark, now add handsome multiplied by ten. Black hair, straight nose, firm sensual lips, and his eyes She stared into the heavily lashed golden-brown gaze almost mesmerized. Pulling herself together, she said icily, 'Now, look here'
'The name's Zac Lawson.' He said it as though it would clarify everything, and when she still continued to hold herself tense and at the ready, he added, 'Jennie's cousin? She called you and Susan earlier to explain.'
'Explain?' she echoed a little vacantly. The tawny eyes were compelling. Too compelling, a separate part of her mind stated ominously. Whoever he was, this man had more than his fair share of magnetism. Just like Giles. And like Giles, she had the feeling he'd use it to his advantage without any compunction whatsoever. Not reassuring in the circumstances.
'Have you checked your mobile recently?' he said patiently.
A little too patiently, Rachel thought critically. His voice carried more than a touch of long-suffering in its velvet depths. And, of course, today would be the day she'd turned her mobile off when she'd been called in to Jeff's office for her dressing-down and forgotten to turn it on again.
Stiffly, she said, 'I've been extremely busy.'
He nodded. A fairly benign action and his face was quite impassive, so why she should find the movement so offensive Rachel wasn't quite sure. Perhaps it was his resigned air?
'I'm Jennie's cousin,' he said again in the same patient tone. 'Our families lived in the same street while we were growing up so we saw a lot of each other before my parents moved to Canada when I was sixteen and Jennie was eleven. I'm over here on business for three weeks, and when I rang Jennie to say hi she insisted I have dinner with you all tonight.'
That explained the smoky, sexy burr to his voice. She hadn't been able to place the accent, it was so slight, but it added to his overall attraction a hundredfold. Not that she was attracted to him, she added hastily. She'd had her fill of arrogant, handsome charmers and Jennie's cousin seemed full of himself.
'I called in at Jennie's office and picked up her key earliershe insisted the flat was a better place to chill out after the flight than a hotel room,' he continued lazily. 'I'm afraid I've been dead to the world on the sofa.'
Rachel forced a stiff smile. 'That's fine.' Remembering her manners, she added, 'Can I get you a drink?' as she reached out and switched on the light.
She became conscious of several things at the same time. Jennie's cousin was even more devastatingly gorgeous now she could see him properly. There was a touch of grey in the black hair above his ears but it only increased the male magnetism, and the golden gaze was truly spellbinding in the bright light. She had never seen another person with eyes like his. Secondly, those same eyes were surveying her with definite amusement. Thirdly, his clothesnot to mention the gold Rolex on one tanned wristscreamed wealth and taste, and last-lybut most importantlyshe looked like something the cat wouldn't deign to drag in.
Ignoring the puddle of water that had formed at her feet, she kept the smile on her face through sheer willpower. 'A glass of wine?' she persevered. 'Or I think we have a bottle of brandy somewhere. Or perhaps you'd prefer coffee or tea?' she added graciously, the effect being somewhat spoilt when she shivered convulsively and then sneezed three times.
His voice had gentled to the tone one would use with a very young child. 'Why don't you go and change out of those wet clothes while I fix us both some coffee? I think of the two of us you're in need more than me right at this moment.'
She couldn't deny it, with her teeth chattering loud enough to wake the dead. Besides which, she wanted nothing more than to escape those lethal eyes and make herself presentable. She had never fooled herself she could compete with Jennie's dark-eyed voluptuous beauty or Susan's delicate blonde appeal. Her own brown hair and blue eyes were fairly nondescript in her opinion, but looking like a drowned rat was something else.
Clinging onto the shreds of her dignity, Rachel nodded brightly. He had said and done nothing wrong, not really, and she didn't know why she had taken such an instant dislike to Jennie's cousin, but she had. Nevertheless, he was a guest and she knew her manners. 'Thank you. The coffee and sugar pots are on the breakfast bar and there's a fruit cake in the cake tin in the cupboard. Side plates and mugs are'
'I'll find everything. Why don't you have a hot bath?'
Now his voice was distinctly soothing as he interrupted her and it made her want to kick him. Feeling more than a little unnerved by the strength of her own feelings and completely out of her depth, she decided retreat was the only option. 'I won't be long,' she managed as she left for the bathroom. 'Please make yourself at home.' As if he hadn't already.
Rachel for went the hot bath for a warm shower, stuffing her wet clothes in the laundry basket before pulling on the towelling robe she kept on a peg behind the bathroom door and padding through to the bedroom she shared with Jennie to dry her hair. When the three of them had moved into the flat it had been agreed Susan would occupy the tiny second bedroom owing to the fact she snoredloudly.
The ravages of her make-up having been removed in the bathroom, she applied fresh eye shadow and mascara before drying her hair whilst sitting at the small dressing table. She left her thick shoulder-length hair loose, she hadn't got time to fiddle with it, and quickly pulled on a pair of jeans and a warm sweater, surveying herself in the full-length mirror on the wall before she left the room.