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She could hear water running.
Her new neighbour, whoever he might be, was up and about already. Well, she hoped he'd slept better than she had, she thought grumpily. He'd kept her awake until midnight moving things, and the cat deciding she was hungry at five thirty really didn't help.
To be fair, he hadn't been that noisy, but she wasn't feeling fair after another hen weekend, and another of her friends settling down to matrimonial bliss. That left her and Amy, but she couldn't see Amy letting anyone close, and as for herwell, where were all the decent single men without a ton of emotional baggage? Not in Yoxburgh, that was for sure, and even if they were, she wasn't sure she was quite ready to dip her toe in that particular pond again.
She fed Tabitha, made herself a cup of tea and went out to the conservatory. Dawn was breaking, the sky washed pale pink above the rooftops to the east, and she curled up on a chair overlooking her pretty little garden, pressed the mental 'reset' button and let herself come to slowly.
It was her favourite time of the day, before the rest of the world got up, and she cradled her mug in her hands, snuggled further down into the chair and listened to the sounds of the glorious spring morning.
The birds were singing, and she could hear boards creaking next door, more of those masculine footsteps running down the stairs, a muffled exclamationand an almighty crash that sent Tabitha fleeing for the hills and made Daisy spill her tea.
'Oops!' she murmured, trying to tune out the man's voice as she blotted uselessly at her dressing gown, but it was hard to ignore. What on earth had he done? Something pretty drastic, judging by the expletives seeping through the thin party wall.
And then there was silence.
'Are you OK?' she called warilyalthough she didn't really need to raise her voice.
'Umyeah. Sort of,' he replied, his voice muffled by the wall. 'Sorry. Minor crisis.'
'Anything I can do?'
A despairing laugh, then, 'Not unless you're a plumber.'
She heard footsteps striding down the hall, then a door opening, and a knock at her front door.
She opened it, and her mouth sagged. Wow, he was
Well, he was many things. Tall. Broad. Gorgeous. Young enough to be interesting, old enough to have something about him. And there was plenty about him. He was covered in filthy, sodden debris, his suit drenched and splattered, his hair full of bits of stuff, his once-white shirt a dirty, streaky grey. In the striking, really rather fabulous blue eyes lurked a hint of irony that made her smile.
Then the eyes tracked down her dressing gown and stopped on the huge tea-stain. 'What happened to you?' he asked incredulously, and she gave a stunned little laugh.
'I thought that was my line,' she said, trying not to laugh any more because it really, really wasn't funny, but his mouth quirked.
'Ah. My ceiling came down,' he explained unnecessarily, and Daisy had to bite her lip. To her surprise his eyes creased in a smile.
'Sorry about the noise. And the language. I'm Ben, by the way,' he said, holding out his hand, then withdrawing it and wiping it on his trousers, scanning it before offering it again. She took it, noting that as well as being a little wet and gritty, it was warm and firm. Strong.
And his voicea hint of something that could have been Yorkshire? A little gruff. A little blunt. And a lot sexy.
'Daisy,' she said, and let herself smile properly. 'Welcome to Rivenhall Villas. May it get better.'
He gave a slightly desperate laugh and closed his eyes, dragging his hand over his face and smearing the dirt into it. A streak of blood joined the dirt, welling slowly from a thin cut over his eyebrow.
'I can only hope. I don't suppose you know a plumber?'
She tightened the belt of her saturated dressing gown, hopped over the low fence between the diamond-patterned paths and peered down his hall at a scene of utter devastation. His kitchen had disappeared under a sea of sodden lime plaster and broken laths, and there was a slow, steady drip from a dangling lump of ceiling. The rush, she sensed, was over, but.
'Just a plumber?' she murmured thoughtfully, and behind her she heard another wry laugh.
'A plumber would be a pretty good start. An electrician might be a handy second, that light's hanging at a jaunty angle. And a plasterer, perhaps?'
'Mmm. It seems to have stopped, though.'
'Yeah. I reckon it was the waste. I'd just had a bath.'
'Ah. Very likely, then. I tell you what,' she said, turning back to him and finding him right behind her. She took a step back, and a nice deep breath, because under the plaster filth and the wet dog smell coming off his suit was the lingering remains of some seriously interesting aftershave. Citrusy, with a touch of amber
'You were about to tell me something,' he prompted, and she collected herself.
'Umyes. Why don't I throw on some clothes and come and help you clear up? I've got an hour before I have to leave for work.' And a nice long shower planned, but she could feel that going out of the window rapidly.
'Lucky you. I have to leave now. Let's face it, it can't get any worse, but I can't do anything about it and I've got bigger fish to fry. It's my first day in a new job, I don't have another suit or any way of getting the filth out of my hair, and there's no way I'm turning a tap on! I guess I'll just have to make do with spitting on a handkerchief.'
Obviously he hadn't looked in a mirror yet.
'This is going to take more than spitting on a hankie to sort out,' she said drily. 'And you've got a cut over your left eye. Do you have another shirt?'
He fingered his eyebrow gingerly and nodded. 'And trousers and a jacket, but not the power suit, sadly.'
'Can't help you there,' she said, giving up all hope of starting her day with any kind of normality. 'However, I do have a shower. Why don't you grab some clean stuff and sort yourself out while I find you a plumber?'
'Really. Find your clothes, I'll get dressed and I can make a start on the clean-up, too. I have a vacuum that's very good for sucking up spills.'
'Spills?' He choked on a laugh, and the smile that crinkled his eyes made her stomach turn over. 'There's a bathful of water on that floor.'
'No problem. It can cope. I'll just have to empty it lotsif I can find the sink.'
He frowned. 'Daisy, are you sure? It's a hell of an imposition.'
Well, at least he realised it. Her morning was running away with her, but she couldn't just leave him like this. She found a smilenot as hard as she'd thought, because those eyes were really quite.
'I thought you were in a hurry?' she said, and squeezed past him, hopped over the fence and ran upstairs, dragged on her gardening clothes, put a towel in the bathroom for him and had just hauled the vacuum up from the cellar as he appeared at her door.
'Look, you really don't have to clean up'
'Don't be silly, it's nothing. Bathroom's at the top of the stairs, straight ahead of you. I've put you out a towel on the side of the bath and the plumber's calling me back.'
He didn't believe it.
He should. Things like this seemed to happen to him these days. He tipped his head forwards so it was under the stream of hot water and let out a tired, frustrated sigh. He'd known moving into the house before it was fixed was rash, butthis rash?
Thank God for Daisy. The shower was bliss. He could have stood there all day under the streaming hot water, but he didn't have time. He borrowed some of her shampoo and washed the filth out of his hair, and discovered some interesting lumps and bumps on his scalp. The cut over his eyebrow was stinging, too. Damn. He sluiced the grit and grime off his body, gave himself a very hasty rub-down with Daisy's borrowed towel, then dressed in record time, scowled at the cut on his eyebrow, frowned at a mark on his shoes that wouldn't shift and gave up.
There was nothing more he could do. Nothing he had time to do. His ruined suit was lying in a soggy heap in the bottom of Daisy's pristine and rather beautiful bath, and he left it there. He'd sort everything out with her later, once he'd got today out of the way.
He could hear the vacuum going next door, sucking up the water. Bless her heart. Of all the daysand of all the neighbours, he thought with a bemused smile. What a star.
A small black cat with huge ears and brilliant green eyes watched him disdainfully through the banisters as he went downstairs. He stretched out a hand to her, and after a second she turned away, and he carried on down with a wry chuckle, dismissed.
He hopped over the pointless but decorative little fence and went into his house, to find Daisy in the middle of the kitchen somehow bringing order to the chaos. The water was largely gone, and she was shoving debris to the side with a broom.
'Daisy, you don't have to do that! I'll clear it up later.'
'I'm nearly done. I've cleared the rubble off the boxes to give them a chance to dry out. I think you might have lost some crockery or glassesthat one tinkled a bit.'
He shrugged. Glasses he could live without. At least he was alive. He fingered the cut again, and she peered at it.
'You need a plaster on that.'
He shrugged again. 'No idea where they are, but I'm sure I'll live. I don't suppose you've heard from the plumber, have you?'
'No, not yet. Take my mobile number and give me a missed call, and I'll send you a text when I hear from him.'
He keyed it in, then slid the phone back into his pocket and ran a hand through his damp hair. 'Look, I'm sorry, I've left my suit in your bath, but I have to go now. I'll deal with it later, and all of this. You don't have to do any more'
'Go. I'm nearly done. I'll see you later. Can I just drop the door shut on the latch?'
'That's fine. Thank you so much. I owe you, big-time.'
'Too right. I'll expect a slap-up dinner at the least,' she said drily, swiping an armful of soggy plaster rubble off the worktop onto the filthy floor.
'Consider it done.'
She flashed a smile at him, a streak of dirt on her cheek giving her the impish, mischievous look of a little girl having way too much funand he didn't really want to start thinking about Daisy having fun, because it was a long, long time since he'd had fun with a woman, and for all she might look fleetingly like the little girl she'd once been, there was nothing but woman under those clothes. And he was taking her out to dinner?
He cleared his throat, nodded curtly and went.
Daisy straightened up, blew the hair back out of her eyes and looked around. Utter chaos, but at least it was organised chaos now. The rubble was swept into a heap, the boxes had been blotted dry and the water sucked upand she was going to be late for work, today of all days!
She fled, grabbing the quickest shower on record and dragging on her clothes. Her hair would have to do, she decided, pulling it back and doubling it into a loose bun in an elastic band. No time for makeup. No time for anything, and the new consultant was starting today.
Great start, she thought. Please God he wasn't an arrogant snobor a tedious box-ticker. One of them on the team was more than enough. She ran to the car, paused in the street to shut her garden gates and headed for the hospital.
On the way she took a call from the plumber, then dropped Ben's suit into the cleaners in the hospital reception area, instructing them to be careful. She'd seen the label, and it had made her wince.
Then she legged it for the ward.
By the time she got there, people were clustered around the nursing station. She could see a man's head slightly above the rest, hear a quiet voice giving some kind of team-leading chat, and her heart sank. Damn. He was here already, doing the meet and greet. So much for making a good impression.
Evan Jones, the specialist registrar, gave the ward clock a pointed look as she squeezed into the group.
'Sorry I'm' she began a little breathlessly, and then stopped in her tracks as the man turned and met her eyes, and if she hadn't been so busy staring at him in shock she would have missed the quickly masked flicker of surprise.
'Mr Walker, this is Dr Fuller,' Evan said, sounding and looking unimpressed, but Ben's professional smile did something utterly different in his eyes, and he brushed Evan smoothly aside.
'Yes, we've met. Dr Fuller's very kindly been doing something for me,' he explained, cutting him off at the knees, and then turned back to her. 'Any joy?'
Still shocked, running on autopilot and ready to fall in love with him for saving her from another tedious lecture, she nodded. 'Yes, it's sorted,' she told him without missing a beat. He'd found a plaster, she thought, staring at the cut above his eyebrow, but apart from that you'd never know how his day had started. He looked cool, calm and in controlmore than she was.