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Ryan Armstrong never mixed business with pleasure.
His was very much a case of once bitten, a zillion times shy. Not that the word 'shy' fitted Ryan's confident and outgoing personality. So cross out 'shy' and put 'wary' instead.
Ryan was wary of the complications and consequences which came from mixing business and pleasure. Very wary.
When he'd been younger and not involved in the business world there'd been no need to resist temptation when it had come to the fairer sex. If he'd been attracted to a girl, he'd never stopped to think before his male hormones had sent him off in pursuit. He was usually successful in that pursuit, Mother Nature having endowed him with the sort of tall, broad-shouldered and extremely athletic body which women lusted after and which had seen him rise to become one of the world's most successful and well-paid goalkeepers. From the ages of twenty-three to twenty-nine, during which he'd played international soccer for several European clubs, he'd had more girlfriends than he'd saved goals.
When injury had forced early retirement at the age of thirty, and he had set up his own sports-management company back in Sydney, Ryan unfortunately had not developed the good habit of either controlling or ignoring his sexual urges. So when one of his first female clientswho was very attractive as well as a great athletestarted flirting with Ryan, it was inevitable that they would end up in bed together. Given she was nearly thirty and totally dedicated to her sports career, Ryan never imagined that she would want anything more from him than a casual fling.
By the end of their second date, however, Ryan had seen that he'd made a huge mistake. The girl had constantly sent him text messages raving about his love-making abilities, then saying how much she was going to enjoy being his wife. When he'd tried to finish thingsvery tactfully, he'd thoughtshe had gone all out to destroy his business. She'd released confidential information to the papers, plus had tried to drag his name through the mud in every possible way.
Unfortunately, by then he'd deleted all those revealing messages and it had been a case of her word against his. He'd come out the winner in the end, but it had been a close call. Ryan shuddered whenever he thought how close he'd come to losing everything he'd worked for. His business had still suffered for a while, hence his rule about mixing business with pleasure.
These days, he only dated mature, sensible women who had absolutely nothing to do with the Win-Win Sports Management Agency. He steered well clear of female clients and employees. He even trod carefully when it came to any kind of close business-colleague. His current girlfriend was a public-relations executive from a firm whose services he never used. Erica was blonde, thirty-five years old, divorced, childless and ruthlessly ambitious.
Thankfully, she was no more interested in marriage than he was. Or falling in love, for that matter. She'd been there, done that and it hadn't worked out. She suited Ryan's needs admirably, being attractive, intelligent and sexy. Ryan had discovered over the last few years that driven career-girls were usually hot between the sheetsand not given to huge tantrums when he wanted to move on.
Ryan moved on every few months. Occasionally, a relationship would last a little longer, but usually not. Often they ended earlier, once or twice after only a few weeks. Ryan always opted out very quickly if he thought he was becoming involved with a potential problem. He'd reached an agehe would turn thirty-eight next birthdayby which most guys had given up their bachelor days in favour of marriage and a family. He'd seen it happen time and time again. All his male friends were now married, even the ones whom he'd thought would never succumb to the urge to settle down and have children.
Ryan could well understand why members of the opposite sex saw him as a suitable target for marriage. Because he never talked about his past, what they didn't know was that he'd decided a long time ago that he would never become a husband and father. And he hadn't changed his mind about that.
A sharp tap-tap on the office door interrupted his thoughts and sent his eyes to the clock on his desk. Exactly three p.m.; right on time as usual, Ryan thought with illogical irritation. He actually admired punctuality. He hated wasting time waiting for people, especially when he'd made an appointment. So why didn't he admire it at three p.m. every Friday afternoon?
'Come in, Laura,' he called out through clenched teeth.
She came in, looking exactly the same as she always looked: severely tailored black suit with black hair up in an equally severe French pleat. No make-up. No jewellery. No perfume.
As she crossed the room towards the chair she always occupied during their weekly meeting, Ryan looked her up and down and wondered why she did that to herself. Did she imagine that this was how a female lawyer should looktough, hard, and totally sexless?
Anyone could see that she could be a very attractive woman if she tried. She had a good figure and an interesting face with high cheekbones and exotically shaped grey eyes. Admittedly, those eyes were usually as cold as an arctic sky, especially when they looked at him.
So Ryan was startled when their eyes met and he glimpsed not chilly indifference for once but a type of pained regret. She even stopped walking for a second to stare at him.
'What?' he said straight away.
'Nothing,' she replied, and shook her head. 'Sorry. Let's get straight down to business, shall we?' She sat down, crossed her legs with her usual crisp modesty then leant forward to pick up the first of the contracts which were sitting on the edge of his desk waiting for her perusal.
It was a lucrative endorsement deal he'd personally negotiated for an up-and-coming young male tennis-player whom Win-Win had been lucky enough to sign up the previous month. A lot of Ryan's work involved negotiating contracts of one sort or another, all of which he always had checked over by one of the best legal brains in the whole of Sydneywhich Laura had.
She wasn't an employee of Win-Win; Ryan didn't need a lawyer to work for him full-time. His company was more of the boutique variety. She worked for Harvey, Michaels and Associates, an American-owned legal firm with a Sydney branch which was conveniently located in the same building as Ryan's business and which boasted a stable of brilliant criminal and corporate lawyers.
When Ryan had become one of their clients several years ago, they had originally sent him a young male lawyer at Ryan's requesta smart guy, but a very bad driver who'd wrapped his car around a tree two years back. When the firm had suggested a female replacement, Ryan had been hesitant at first, especially when he had found out she was only thirty and single. But as soon as he had met Laura Ryan had realised there was no chance of his becoming involved with her. Or vice versa.
She still wasn't a problem in that regard. But she could be irritating all the same. Ryan wasn't used to being treated with such patent indifference by members of the opposite sex. It irked his male ego, which was considerable. Sometimes her disinterest seemed to border on outright dislike. It crossed his mind occasionally that she might not be interested in men, but he had no real evidence of this. It seemed more likely that past experiences had turned her into a man-hatereither that or she'd never met a man capable of melting her frozen exterior.
Once, a couple of weeks ago when she'd been particularly frosty with him, he'd been taken by the sudden urge to pull her into his arms and kiss her silly, just to see if he could get a reaction out of her.
He hadn't given in to that urge, of course. Ryan knew if he did any such thing he'd have a world of trouble on his hands faster than a world-class striker could score a goalamazingly fast.
Besides, he had a lot more control over his testosterone these days. On the surface, that was. His mind, however, had given way to fantasies about the infernal woman all that afternoon.
A wry smile curved his lips as he recalled what he'd done to her in his head, and how avidly she'd responded.
In your dreams, Ryan!
'What's so funny?'
Ryan's head snapped clear at her caustic question, his amusement replaced by surprise. It wasn't like Laura to notice anything when she was reading through a contract. She almost never glanced up until she was finished, which she obviously wasn't. By the look of things, she'd only reached the second page of the five-page document.
'Nothing to do with you, Laura,' he lied. 'Just looking forward to the weekend. I'm going sailing with some friends tomorrow.' Which he was. Erica was away this weekend in Melbourne, attending a conference.
Laura's sigh also surprised him. It sounded envious.
'Want to come?' The invitation was out of his mouth before he could snatch it back.
She blinked with shock before dropping her eyes back to the contract. 'Sorry,' she said brusquely. 'I'm busy this weekend.'
Wow, he thought. That was a narrow escape. Whatever had possessed him to invite her? Still, his ego was slightly stroked by her not having said no outright. Maybe she wasn't as indifferent to his charms as she always seemed.
Ryan knew most women were attracted to him, as they were to most tall, good-looking, successful men.
No false modesty about Ryan.
He didn't interrupt her as she finished reading the contract but his mind remained extremely active. So did his eyes.
She really did have great legs. He liked women with shapely calves and slender ankles, and feet which weren't too big. Laura's feet were quite daintily small for a girl of her height. Pity about those awful shoes she was wearing!
Her hair was great too: dark, thick, glossy and obviously long. It would look fabulous spread out against a pillow.
Whoops. He was doing it again: having sexual fantasies about her. He really had to stop this.
Swinging his chair round to the huge window behind him, Ryan stared out at the view of the harbour which he always found pleasurably diverting and was one of the reasons he'd rented this particular suite of rooms in this building. The other reason was that it was less than two blocks from where he lived in an apartment building which also had a wonderful view of the harbour.
When Ryan had first retired from soccer, he'd missed spending most of his life outdoors. He hated the feeling of being closed in. He liked space around him, liked to see the skyand water, he'd discovered to his surprise. He hadn't grown up with a love of water, mostly because it hadn't been a part of his life; he had never even been taken to the beach as a child. He hadn't learned to swim till he was twenty, and that had only happened because he'd been forced to train in a pool for a few weeks whilst he recovered from injury.
After his return to live in Sydney, however, he had found himself very drawn to the water, hence his buying an apartment and leasing an office that both came with harbour views. Recently, he'd developed a real love of sailing, and was considering buying a boat.
There were plenty of boats out on the harbour that afternoon, winter having finally given way to spring. The rain which had plagued Sydney for the past two months was thankfully gone; the sky was clear and blue and the water inviting.
His eyes zeroed in on one of the boats which was just moving past Bennelong Point, heading out to sea. It was a large white cruiser, an expensive toy for someone with plenty of money.
Maybe I'll buy one of those, Ryan thought idly.
He could well afford it; Win-Win wasn't Ryan's only source of income. Back during his goalkeeping days, he'd had the sense to invest most of the huge salary he'd earned each year into property. By the time he had retired, he was the owner of a dozen or so units, all located in Sydney's inner-city suburbs where the rental returns were excellent and the apartments never empty for long.
His extensive property portfolio was another thing Ryan didn't talk about, however, knowing it wasn't wise to broadcast one's wealth. He'd found it didn't do to court envy. He had a small group of friends who were successful men in their own right, though not multi-millionaires like him. He enjoyed their company and was loath to do anything to spoil their friendship. Of course, now that they'd all tied the knot, he didn't have quite as much to do with them as he used to. But they still got together occasionally to go to the football or the races.
None of them owned a boat. The 'friends' Ryan was going sailing with tomorrow were not real friends. They were professional yachtsmen whom he'd met through his job and who'd been teaching him the ropes about sailing.
'I can't seem to find anything wrong with it,' Laura said at last, in a troubled tone which suggested she should have been able to.
Ryan swung his chair back round to face her.
'You're quite sure?' he asked. It wasn't like Laura not to want him to change something. She often spotted potential legal loopholes which weren't to his client's advantage.
'Maybe I should read through it again.'
Ryan was as surprised by her suggesting this as he'd been by the odd look she'd given him earlier. Really, she wasn't herself today. Now that he'd stopped filling his mind with distracting images, he could see that she was the one who was distracted.
What was it that had upset her so much that her mind wasn't on her work? It had to be something serious.
A curious Ryan decided to see if he could find out.
'No need to do that,' he said. 'I'm sure it's fine. Why don't you have a quick whizz through the other two contracts? They're just renewals. Then we'll call it a day and I'll take you down to the Opera Bar for a drink.' If he could get her to relax, she might open up to him a bit.
She surprised him again by not saying no straight away.
Curiouser and curiouser.
But she didn't say yes, either.