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Lucinda Myles wasn't the sort of woman to panic, usually. But the prospect of being without a bed for the night five days before Christmas, in the midst of the coldest December the north-west of England had seen in decades, was decidedly unappealing. The city of Chester was booked solid by Christmas shoppers and by the other unfortunate academics attending the badly timed Bringing History to the Future conference. If the Royal Court Hotel didn't find her booking
well, she was going to need a new plan. But first she'd try dogged persistence. It had always worked for her grandfather.
'I understand that you're fully booked,' Luce said, in her most patient and forbearing voice. The one she usually saved for her brother Tom, when he was being particularly obtuse. 'But one of those room bookings should be for me. Dr Lucinda Myles.' She leant across the reception desk to try to see the girl's computer screen. 'M-Y-L-E-S.'
The blonde behind the desk angled the screen away from her. 'I'm afraid there is no booking at this hotel under that name for tonight. Or any other night, for that matter.'
Luce gritted her teeth. This was what she got for letting the conference staff take charge of her hotel booking. She really should have known better. Take responsibility. Take control. Words to live by, her grandfather had always said. Shame she was the only one in the family to listen.
As if to echo the thought, her phone buzzed in her pocket. Luce sighed as she reached in to dig it out, knowing without looking that it would be Tom. 'And there are absolutely no free rooms in the hotel tonight?' she asked the blonde, figuring it was worth one more shot. 'Even the suites are booked?' She could make the university reimburse her. They wanted her here at the conferencethe least they could do was give her a decent room for the night.
'Everything. Every room is booked. It's Christmas, in case you hadn't noticed. And now, if I can't be of any further assistance ' The blonde looked over Luce's shoulder.
Glancing back herself, Luce saw a growing queue of people waiting to check in. Well, they were just going to have to wait. She wasn't going to be intimidated by this fancy hotel with its marble floors, elegant golden Christmas tree, chandeliers and impatient businessmen. She'd had one hell of a day, and she was taking responsibility for making it better. 'Actually, perhaps you could check if any of the other local hotels have a free room. Since you've lost my reservation.'
'We haven't' the blonde started, but Luce cut her off with a look. She sighed. 'I'll just check.'
While the blonde motioned to her colleague to come and assist with the check-in queue, Luce slid a finger across the touch screen of her phone to check her messages. Three texts and a voicemail. All in the last twenty minutes, while she'd been arguing with the receptionist. A light day, really.
She scrolled to the first text while the disgruntled businessman behind her checked in at the next computer. It was from Tom, of course.
Has Mum spoken to you about Christmas Eve? Can you do it?
Christmas Eve? Luce frowned. That meant the voicemail was probably from her mother, changing their festive plans for the sixth time that month. The next text was from her sister Dolly.
Looking forward to Xmas Eveespecially chocolate pots!
That didn't bode well. Christmas Day was planned and sorted and all due for delivery from the local supermarket on the twenty-thirdapart from the turkey, which was safely stored in her freezer. Christmas Eve, howeverthat was a whole different proposition.
The final text was Tom again.
Mum says we have a go! Fantastic. See you then.
Luce sighed. Whatever Mum's new plan was, apparently it was a done deal. 'You're the responsible one, Lucinda,' her grandfather had always said. 'The rest of them couldn't take care of themselves for a minute out there in the real world. You and I know that. Which is why you're going to have to do it for them.'
Apparently they needed looking after again. With a Christmas Eve dinner. And chocolate puddings. Presumably in addition to the threecourse dinner she'd be expected to produce the following day. Perfect.
Luce clicked the phone off as the blonde came back. The voicemail from her mother, hopefully explaining everything, could wait until Luce had a bed for the night.
'I'm sorry,' the blonde said, without a hint of apology in her voice. 'There's some history conference in town, and with all the Christmas shoppers as well I'm afraid the local accommodation has been booked up for months.'
Of course it has, Luce wanted to say. I'm here for the damn conference. I booked my room months ago. I've just spent all morning discussing how to bring history into the future. I deserve a room.
But instead she clenched her jaw while she thought her way out of the problem.
'Right, then,' she said after a moment. 'I'm going to go and sit over there and try calling some places myself.' She motioned to the bar at the side of the lobby, where discreet twinkling fairy lights beckoned. This day would definitely be better with a gin and tonic. 'In the meantime, if you have any cancellations, I'd appreciate it if you'd book the room under my name.'
'Of course.' The blonde nodded, but her tone said, You'll be lucky.
Sighing, Luce turned away from the desk, only to find her path to a G&T barred by a broad chest in an expensive shirt. A nice chest. A wide, warm chest. The sort of chest you could bury your face in and forget about your day and let the owner of the chest solve your problems instead.
Not that she needed a man to fix her problems, of course. She was perfectly capable of doing that herself, thank you.
But it would be nice if one offered, just once.
Raising her gaze, she saw that the chest was topped by an almost unbelievably good-looking face. Dark hair brushed back from tanned skin. Golden-brown eyes that glowed above an amused mouth. A small scar marring his left eyebrow.
Hang on. That scar was familiar. She knew this man. And she should probably stop staring.
'Is there a problem with your reservation, madam?' he asked, and Luce blinked.
'Um, only that it doesn't seem to exist.' She glanced back at the reception desk to discover that the blonde, rather than assisting the next guest in the queue, was practically hanging over the counter to get in on their conversation.
'Daisy?' The man raised his scarred eyebrow at the blonde.
Luce definitely recognised that expression. But from where? A conference? A lecture?
Somebody's ex? Hell, maybe even from TV? One of those reality shows about real life in a hotel? Except Luce didn't usually have time to watch such programmes. But the subconscious was a funny thing. Maybe his image had been imprinted on her brain, somehow, in eerie preparation for this moment.
'There's no reservation in her name, sir, and the hotel's fully booked tonight. I tried the usual places, of course, but everyone's booked out.'
For the first time Daisy sounded helpful and efficient. Obviously this guy was someone who mattered. Or Daisy had a huge crush on him. Or, most likely, both. After all, Luce could tell from the way he stoodfeet apart, just enough to anchor him firmly to the earththat this was a man used to the world bending around him rather than the other way round. And really, even with the scarespecially with the scar, actuallywhat young, healthy, straight woman wouldn't feel a certain ping of attraction to him?
Except Luce, of course. She had too many bigger things to worry about to waste time on attraction. Like where she was going to sleep that night. And who the hell he was.
Luce frowned. So annoying. Normally she was good at this stuff. Of course the man hadn't given any indication that he recognised her, so maybe she was wrong. Or just less memorable than he was.
Suddenly Luce was rather glad she couldn't put her finger on his identity. How much more embarrassing would it be to have to explain to him how he knew her while he stared at her blankly? Much better to get this whole interaction over with quickly. She'd probably figure out where she knew him from when she was on the train back to Cardiff on Thursday morning, by which time it wouldn't matter anyway.
'What about the King James Suite?' he asked.
Luce was amused to see Daisy actually blush.
'Well, I didn't think I mean ' she stammered.
Luce, seeing her chance, jumped in. 'You thought I couldn't afford it?' she guessed. 'Firstly, you really shouldn't make such assumptions about your guests. Secondly, since you lost my reservation I'd expect that a free upgrade would be the least you could do. So I'm very interested to hear your response to the gentleman's question.'
Arms folded across her chest, just like her grandfather used to do when he was disappointed in her, Luce stared Daisy down and waited for an answer. This was it, she was sure. The moment her luck turned for the day and she got to spend the night in the best luxury the Royal Court Hotel had to offer. Never mind the gin and tonicshe was having champagne in the bathtub at this rate.
Daisy, redder and more flustered than ever, turned wide blue eyes on her boss. 'But, Mr Hampton, sir I didn't offer her the King James Suite because you're staying there.'
Mr Hampton. Ben Hampton. The memory fell into place just as Daisy's words registered.
Luce winced. Apparently her day wasn't improving after all.
Ben Hampton couldn't keep from smirking when he saw his potential suite-mate roll her eyes to heaven and turn folded arms and an accusing stare on him. This was going to be fun.
Five minutes earlier he'd been about to head out for the evening when he'd seen the brunette holding up the reservations queue in the lobby. His first instinct had been to intervene, to get things moving again. Being one half of the 'sons' in the Hampton & Sons hotel chain meant that he fixed things wherever he saw them. He kept the guests happy, the staff working hard and the hotel ticking over, wherever he happened to be staying at the time. That was his job: keep things moving. Including himself. But of course staff evaluation was also important, his brother Seb would have said, and this had looked like the perfect opportunity to observe how the Royal Court's reception staff dealt with a difficult guest.
So he'd stayed back, trying not to look as if he was loitering behind the ostentatious golden Christmas tree in the lobby, and watched. He'd heard the woman give her name as Lucinda Myles and a jolt of recognition had stabbed through him. Lucinda Myles. Luce. They'd teased her about that, hadn't they? Such an absurd nickname for someone so uptight. Ben knew from six months of dating her university roommate that Luce Myles had been the twenty-year-old most likely to be doing extra course reading on a Friday night, while the rest of them were in the pub. And he'd been able to tell from three metres away that she was still the most tightly wound person he'd ever met.
Luce had vibrated with irritation and impatience, just as she had whenever he and the girlfriend had emerged from their bed at noon on a weekday. Ben frowned. What had her name been, anyway? The girlfriend? Molly? Mandy? Hell, it had been eight years agoeven if six months was something of a relationship record for him. Was he supposed to remember the name of every girl he'd ever dated? But Luce Myles that wholly inaccurate name had stuck with him down the years.
Casually, he'd turned his head to get a better look at her. Dark hair, clipped at the back of her head, had revealed the creamy curve of her neck down to her collarbone, shoulders, tense under her sweater. The heel of her boot had been tapping against the marble as she waited for Daisy to finish calling around for a room Ben knew wouldn't exist. She'd been knotted so tight she might have snapped at any moment, and he'd wondered whypassing acquaintance asidehe was even vaguely interested in her. Yes, he liked a woman who knew what she wanted, but usually she wanted a good timeand him. Lucinda Myles didn't look as if she'd gained any conception of what a good time was in the last decade, let alone a desire to have one.
In fact, he'd realised with a jolt, he knew exactly what she looked like. That permanent frown etched in her forehead, the frustration around her eyesthey were familiar. He'd seen them on his mother's face often enough.
But that hadn't explained his sudden interest. He'd studied her closer and eventually decided it was her clothes. Despite the 'stay away' vibes her demeanour gave out, her clothes were just begging to be touched. Straight velvet skirt in the darkest plum, a navy sweater that looked so soft it had to be cashmere. Even her sensible brown boots were suede. She certainly hadn't dressed like that at university. Ben appreciated fine fabrics, and the sight had made his fingers itch to touch them.
He'd wondered what she had on underneath.
A woman couldn't wear clothes that strokeable if she didn't have something of a sensual nature under them. Even if she didn't know it was there yet. Maybe Lucinda Myles had an inner sensuality just begging to be let out after all these years. Ben had thought he might like to help her with that. For old times' sake.
Daisy had returned to report on the utter lack of available hotel rooms in the local area, and Luce had moved awaywhich simply didn't fit in with Ben's plans. So he'd stepped forward and suggested the King James Suite, which had had the added bonus of enabling him to watch Luce's face when she realised who she'd be sharing with.
Except her reaction wasn't quite what he'd been expecting.
There'd been no sign that she recognised him, for a start, which was a bit of a blow to the ego. He liked to think he was a fairly memorable guy. But then, he'd grown up in eight years. Changed just as she had. Would he have recognised her without hearing her name? Probably not. So he could forgive her that. No, the cutting part was that instead of flushing red or widening her eyes, like Daisy did, or even giving him a glimpse through her armour of tension and irritation like any other woman would have, Lucinda Myles had winced.
Winced. At the prospect of spending the night with him.
Daisy's eyes grew wider than ever and Ben decided it might be better for his reputationand egoif they moved this conversation elsewhere.
'Before you get entirely the wrong idea about my intentions,' he said, angling an arm behind Luce to guide her towards the bar, 'I should point out that I'm the owner of this hotel rather than an opportunistic guest. Ben Hampton, by the way.' A slow blink from Luce. Recognition? Ben pressed on anyway. 'And you should also know that the King James Suite has two very finely appointed bedrooms.'
Luce pursed her lips and eyed him speculatively before giving a sharp nod. 'Buy me a gin and tonic and you can explain exactly what you did mean by propositioning me in that manner while I try and find somewhere else to stay tonight.'
It wasn't entirely what he'd intended, but it would do. It would give her time to remember him, or for him to introduce himself all over again. And getting her even more tightly wound than usual would only make it more glorious when she fell apart under his touch.