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A roadside explosion in the darkest depths of a war zone three years ago had left Blake Walker with a finely honed sense of doom. Today that doom stormed towards him on a pair of legs that wouldn't quit and a ball-breaking attitude that was guaranteed to ruin his last day on the job.
Ava Kelly might be one of the world's most beautiful women but she redefined the term diva.
Doing this job for her had been a freaking nightmare.
Her classy Oxford accent grated and Blake took a deep breath. He went to the happy place the army shrink had insisted he findwhich at the moment was anywhere but here.
Last day, man, keep yourself together.
'Ava,' he greeted as she stopped on the opposite side of the beautiful maple-wood island bench in the kitchen where he was poring over some paperwork. He'd polished the top to glass-like perfection with his own two hands. 'Problem?'
'You could say that,' she said, folding her arms and glaring at him.
Blake did not drop his gaze and admire how the arm-crossing emphasised the tanned perfection of her cleavage. Even if it was on open display in her loosely tied gossamer gown that reeked of a designer label and through which her itty-bitty, red bikini could also be clearly seen.
He did not think about how wet she was underneath it. About the water droplets that dripped off the ends of her slicked-back hair or trekked down the elegant line of her throat to cling precariously to her prominent collarbones before heading further south.
Blake did not look.
Blake was in a good place in his life. He was fit and healthy after a long period of being neither. He was financially secure. He had direction and purpose.
He could get laid any night of the week with just one phone call placed to any of half a dozen women. He didn't need to ogle the one in front of him.
She was trouble and he'd already had too much of that.
Instead he thought about the month-long holiday he started tomorrowno braving a clutch of paparazzi every morning, no twelve-hour days and, most importantly, no divas.
'Something I can help with?' he asked.
'Yes,' she said, raising her chin to peer down her nose at him in that way he'd got used to the last few months. 'You can ask your salivating apprentice' she jerked her thumb in the direction of the male in question 'to put his eyes back in his head and keep his mind on the job.
My friends aren't here to be gawked at. They come into the privacy of my home to get away from objectification.'
Blake glanced over at the three women frolicking in the fully glassed indoor pool that ran alongside the magnificent internal open-air courtyard. They were all tall, tanned and gorgeous and if they were friends of Ava's then they were no doubt models too. Between them there were only twelve triangles of fabric keeping them from being totally naked.
He glanced at Dougy, who was installing some sophisticated strip lighting down the outside of the glass and steel staircase that led from the courtyard to a mezzanine level for sunbathing. Ava was right: he was barely keeping his tongue inside his head. Not that Blake could really blame him. This had to be every young apprentice's wet dream. And he was like a kid in a candy shop.
Sunlight flooded the courtyard through the open glass roof above reflecting off the stark white decor, dazzling his eyes. For a moment Blake tuned out Ava's disapproval and admired what they'd achievedoutside a semidetached, early-nineteenth-century terraced house, inside a vibrant contemporary home full of light and flair.
'Well?' Ava's huffy demand yanked him back to the conversation.
'Dougy,' Blake said, in no mood to humour her as her gown slipped off her right shoulder exposing more of her to his view. He kept his gaze firmly fixed on the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her perfect little snub nose placed perfectly in the middle of her delicate kitten-like face.
'His name's Dougy.'
'Well, do you think you could rein Dougy in? He's acting like some horny teenager.'
Blake sighed. Why was it he liked project management again? He made a note to tell Charlie no more divas. Their business was going gangbustersthey could afford to be choosey.
'Ava,' he said patiently, 'he's nineteen. He is a horny teenager.'
'Well, he can be that on his own time,' she snapped. 'When he's on my time, I expect him to have his head down and do the job I'm paying him for. And so should you.'
Blake contemplated telling Ava Kelly to quit her bitching and let him worry about his employees. Dougy was a good apprenticekeen and a hard workerand Blake wasn't about to make an issue out of what was, to him, a non-issue. But he figured no one had ever used the B word around Ms Kellynot to her face anywayand he wasn't going to be the first.
Hell, what she needed was a damn good spanking. But he wasn't about to do that either.
The job was over at the end of the day, they were just putting the finishing touches to the reno, and he could suck up her divaness for a few more hours.
Blake unclenched his jaw. 'I'll talk to him,' he said through stiff lips.
Ava looked down her nose at him again and sniffed. 'See that you do.'
Then she spun on her heel and marched away. He watched as the edges of her gown flowed behind her like tails, her lovely ankles exposed with every footfall.
Higher up his gaze snagged on the enticing sway of one teeny-tiny red triangle.
The end of the day couldn't come soon enough.
A couple of hours later Blake answered the phone to his brother. Blake rarely answered the phone while at a job site but he always picked up for Charlie. His brother might have been younger but he'd been the driving force behind their design business and behind dragging Blake out of the maudlin pit of despair he'd almost totally disappeared into a few years back.
Blake owed Charlie big time.
'What's up?' he asked.
'Joanna rang. She's really upset. One of their biggest supporters is pulling out due to financial issues and she's freaking out they won't be able to continue to run their programmes.'
Joanna was their sister. She'd been widowed three years ago when her husband, Colin, a lieutenant in the British army and a close friend of Blake's, was killed in the same explosion that had injured him. They'd been in the same unit and he'd been Col's captain. And he'd promised his sister he'd look out for her husband.
That he'd bring him home alive.
Not a promise he'd been able to keep as it turned out.
She and three other army wives had started a charity soon after, which supported the wives, girlfriends and families of British servicemen. They'd done very well in almost two years but fighting for any charity backing in the global financial situation was hardlosing the support of a major contributor was a real blow.
And losing Col had been blow enough.
Blake understood that it was through the charity that Joanna kept him alive. It kept her going. It was her crutch.
And Blake understood crutches better than anyone.
'I guess we're in a position with the business now to become patrons ourselves,' Blake said.
The muscles in Blake's neck tensed at the imperious voice. He took a deep breath as he turned around, his brother still speaking in his ear.
'We can't afford the one million quid that's been yanked from their coffers,' Charlie said.
Ava went to open her mouth but Blake was so shocked by the amount he held his finger up to indicate that she wait without realising what he was doing. 'Joanna needs a million pounds?'
He watched Ava absently as Charlie rattled off the intricacies. By the look on her face and the miffed little arm-fold, she wasn't accustomed to being told to wait. But holy cowone million pounds?
'I need you to move your car,' Ava said, tapping her fingers on her arm, obviously waiting as long as she was going to despite Charlie still yakking in his ear. 'I'm expecting a photographer from a magazine and your beat-up piece of junk spoils the ambience a little.'
Blake blinked at Ava's request. She'd never seemed more frivolous or more divaish to him and he was exceptionally pleased this was the last time he'd ever have to see her.
Yes, she was sexy, and in a parallel universe where she wasn't an elite supermodel and he wasn't a glorified construction worker he might have even gone theregiven it a shot.
But skin-deep beauty left him cold.
He quirked a you-have-to-be-kidding-me eyebrow but didn't say a word to her as he spoke to Charlie. 'I've got to go and shift my piece of junk car.' He kept his gaze fixed to her face. 'We'll think of something for Joanna. I'll call you when I've finished tonight.'
'Who's Joanna?' Ava asked as Charlie hit the end button.
Blake stiffened. He didn't want to tell Little-Miss-I've-got-a-photographer-coming Ava anything about his private life. But mind your own business probably wasn't the best response either. 'Our sister,' he said, his lips tight.
'Is she okay?'
Blake recoiled in surprise. Not just that she'd enquired about somebody else's welfare but at the genuine note of concern in her voice. 'She's fine,' he said. 'The charity she runs has hit a bit of a snag, that's all. She'll bounce back.'
And he went and shifted his car so he wouldn't besmirch her Hampstead Village ambience, the paparazzi blinding him with their flashes for the thousandth time.
It was close to nine that night when Blakeand the divawere satisfied that the job was finally complete. The evening was still and warm. Tangerine fingers of daylight could be seen streaking the sky through the open glass panels over the courtyard. Blake was heartened that the long-range weather forecast for September was largely for more of the same.
Perfect boating weather.
Dougy and the other two workers had gone home; the photographer had departed, as had the paparazzi. It was just him and Ava signing off on the reno. Dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's.
They were, once again, at the kitchen island benchhim on one side, her on the other. Ava was sipping a glass of white wine while something delicious cooked on the state-of-the-art cooktop behind him. She'd offered him a beer but he'd declined. She'd offered to feed him but he'd declined that also.
No way was he spending a second longer with Ava than he absolutely had to.
Although the aromas of garlic and basil swirling around him were making him very aware of his empty stomach and his even more empty fridge.
He was also very aware of her. She'd pulled on some raggedy-arsed shorts and a thin, short-sleeved, zip-up hoodie thing over her bikini. The zip was low enough to catch a glimpse of cleavage and a hint of red material as she leaned slightly forward when she asked a question. But that wasn't what was making him aware of her.
God knew she'd swanned around the house in varying states of undress for the last three months.
No. It was the way she was caressing the bench-top that drew his eye. As he walked her through the paperwork the palm of her hand absently stroked back and forth along the glassy maple-wood. He'd learned she was a tactile person and, despite his animosity towards her, he liked that.
She'd handed the decor decisions over to a high-priced consultant who had gone for the typical home-and-garden, money-to-burn classy minimalist. But it was the accessories that Ava had chosen that showed her hedonistic bent. Shaggy rugs, chunky art, the softest mohair throws in vibrant greens and reds and purples for the lounges, beaded wall hangings, a collection of art deco lamps, layers and layers of colourful gauzy fabric falling from the ceiling in her bedroom to form a dazzling canopy over her girly four-poster bed.
Even the fact that she'd chosen a wooden kitchen amidst all the glass and metal told him something about her. He'd have thought for sure she'd have chosen black marble and acres of stainless steel. But clearly, from the smell of dinner, Ava loved to cook and spent a lot of time in the kitchen.
Blake wasn't much of a cook but he loved wood. The family business, until recent times, had been a saw mill and his earliest memories revolved around the fresh earthy smell of cut timber. His grandfather, who had founded the mill fifty year prior, had taught both him and Charlie how to use a lathe from a very early age and Blake had been hooked. He'd worked in the mill weekends and every school holidays until he'd joined up.
He'd personally designed, built and installed the kitchen where they were sitting and something grabbed at his gut to see her hand caressing his creation as she might caress a lover.
'So,' he said as their business concluded, and he got his head back in the game, 'if you're happy that everything has been done to your satisfaction, just sign here and here.'
Blake held out a pen and indicated the lines requiring her signature. Then held his breath. Tactile or not, Ava Kelly had also been demanding, difficult and fickle.
He wasn't counting his chickens until she'd signed on the dotted lines!
* * *
Ava glanced at the enigmatic Blake Walker through her fringe. She'd never met a man who wasn't at least a little in awe of her. Who didn't flirt a little or at least try it on.
But not Blake.
He'd been polite and unflappable even when she'd been at her most unreasonable. And she knew she'd been unreasonable on more than one occasion. Just a little. Just to see if he'd react like a human being for once instead of the face of the businesscomposed, courteous, respectful.
She'd almost got her reaction this afternoon when he'd been on the phone and she'd asked him to shift his car. The tightening of his mouth, that eyebrow raise had spoken volumes. But he'd retreated from the flash of fire she'd seen in his indigo eyes and a part of her had been supremely disappointed.
Something told her that Blake Walker would be quite magnificent all riled up.
Charlie, the more easy-going of the brothers, had said that Blake had been in the army so maybe he was used to following orders, sucking things up?
Ava reluctantly withdrew her hand from the cool smoothness of the bench-top to take the pen. She loved the seductive feel of the beautiful wood and, with Blake's deep voice washing over her and the pasta sauce bubbling away in the background, a feeling of contentment descended. It would be so nice to drop her guard for once, to surrender to the cosy domesticity.
To the intimacy.
Did he feel it too or was it just her overactive imagination after months of building little fantasies about him?
Fantasies that had been getting a lot more complex as he had steadily ignored her.
Like doing him on this magnificent bench-top. A bench-top she'd watched him hone day after day. Sanding, lacquering. Sanding, lacquering. Sanding, lacquering. Layer upon layer until it shone like the finest crystal in the discreet down lights.
Watching him so obviously absorbed by the task. Loving the wood with his touch. Inhaling its earthy essence with each flare of his nostrils. Caressing it with his lingering gaze.
She could have stripped stark naked in front of him as he'd worked the wood and she doubted he would have noticed.
And for a woman used to being adored, being ignored had been challenging.
Ava dragged her mind off the bench-top and what she was doing to an unknowing Blake on top of it. 'I'm abso-lutely positively one hundred per cent ' she punctuated each affirmation with firm strokes of the pen across the indicated lines ' happy with the job. It's totally fab. I'm going to tell all my friends to use you guys.'