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Rhianne heard the screech of brakes before she saw the car. By then it was too late. Lost in her own world of misery she had not thought to look before she stepped off the pavement. Urged on by the front fender of the car, she spun across the road and for a few moments lay curled in blessed silence. It was as though everything in the whole world had stopped. No traffic noise, no voices, no birds singing. Nothing except a strange calm. She wasn't even hurting.
Then came the voice. A deep, gruff male voice. 'Why the hell didn't you look where you were going?'
Why the hell didn't she look? Rhianne struggled to turn her head and glare at the owner of the voice. He was clearly the man who had knocked her down. Beyond him was his car with the door still open, the engine still running. 'Why didn't I look?' Her tone matched his for hardness. And why shouldn't it when he was behaving as though she was the one at fault. 'Why the hell didn't you look? Call yourself a driver. This is a busy main road. You should have had your wits about you.'
'Are you hurt?'
The belated question angered her still further. She closed her eyes, needing to shut out the handsome face that had come a little too close. The man was on his haunches now, peering at her, making her feel like an insect under a microscope.
'Hello. Can you hear me?'
So he thought she'd passed out! Rhianne snapped her eyes open again and scrambled to her feet. She felt wobbly but nothing appeared to be broken. At least she didn't think so. Her legs still held her up and she could move her arms. Her hip felt a little sore and she guessed she'd be bruised tomorrow, but other than that she was okay.
No thanks to Mr Fast Car Driver.
When she looked about her she saw that a crowd had gathered, each face filled with concern and curiosity. But the only face she saw clearly was that of the man who'd given her his hand to help her upthe hand she had ignored. The man who was now looking at her with a frown digging deep into his forehead.
'It was my fault. I apologise.' Eyes that were neither grey nor brown but somewhere in between looked intently at her. Eyes that under other circumstances she might have found attractive. At this moment in time, however, she saw only the eyes of a man who was instrumental in her having made a silly fool of herself. It hadn't been entirely his fault but she wasn't going to admit it.
She could hear the murmur of voices as the crowd dispersed; they were happy that she hadn't been seriously injured and were now prepared to carry on their daily lives as though nothing had happened.
Rhianne wished that nothing had happened, that nothing had changed, that she was still in the job she loved and that she hadn't made that awful discovery about Angus.
'Apology accepted,' she answered, belatedly realising that the man was still looking closely at her.
'It was, of course, an error of judgement on my part. I apologise most profusely. If there is anything I can do to'
Rhianne registered for the first time that the man wasn't English. He was olive-skinned and dark-haired hair that could do with cutting, she noticed, hair that looked as though it wanted to curl, and he had a deep, attractive accent that she couldn't quite place. 'Not a thing. I'm not hurt; you can go, I' Suddenly the world spun around her, and she put a hand to her head.
Immediately a pair of strong arms supported her, held her against a body that was strong and firm. Even in her woozy state she recognised that this man seriously looked after himself. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath and then wished she hadn't when the scent of his cologne filled her nostrils. She knew that whenever she smelled this same scent again it would forever remind her of this moment.
Smells did this to her. Lavender reminded her of a holiday she'd once had in Jersey, tobacco reminded her of her grandfather. When she was tiny he used to pick her up and swing her around with his pipe still in his mouth.
'You are hurt,' he insisted. 'Allow me to take you home; it is the least I can do. Or do you need a doctor, should I take you to'
'No, it is nothing,' she exclaimed.
'Then home it is.'
'No!' declared Rhianne, more strongly this time. She had no home; she'd just walked out. She couldn't bear to go back there again.
'In that case I will take you home with me,' he declared imperatively. 'I cannot leave you in this condition.'
'What condition?' she queried, drawing back, widening her attractive blue eyes. 'I'm all rightjust a few bruises, nothing more.'
'A good strong cup of tea is what you need, isn't that the English way of doing things? It is my fault that I knocked you down; it is up to me to ensure that you suffer no serious after-effects.'
Rhianne was given no chance to protest further. With her arm firmly held in his, the stranger led her to his car. Another smell, leather this time, she realised as he helped her inside: soft, luxurious leather. It was a big car, big like the man. And expensive.
Who was he? she wondered. She appreciated his concern even though it wasn't necessary. His suit was dark grey and elegantly tailored, his fine cotton shirt was white and his tie the colour of French mustard.
'I can manage,' she declared when he reached for her seat belt. But he ignored her, insisting on fastening it himself. In such close proximity the full impact of this dangerously attractive man hit her with as much force as when he had knocked her down.
Again his cologne filled the air around her. Musky and woody, not one that she had smelled before. It suited him; it suggested a strong male with firm opinions and a sense of what was right and wrong. It was strange how this thought popped into her head. He was making a big impact on her, that was for sure, but she sincerely hoped that she wasn't making a huge mistake letting him take her to wherever he lived.
What did she know about him? Nothing. Not even his name. Clearly he felt at fault for knocking her down or she wouldn't be here now. But who was he? The effort of thinking proved too much, and she closed her eyes and kept them shut until the car stopped and he killed the engine.
She dared to look about her and saw a tall imposing building. But it wasn't a house, it was a hotel. Alarm bells rang in her head. What purpose did he use it for? Did he make a habit of picking up helpless females?
'You live in a hotel?' she questioned, unaware that nervousness sounded in her voice, or that her eyes had widened dramatically, their normal pale blue darkening to almost navy. She could feel her heart pitter-pattering in her chest and she felt strangely dizzy.
The man smiled. 'In the penthouse suite. Come' he held out his hand 'let me take you up. I can assure you that you will be perfectly safe. My main aim is to make sure that you have suffered no ill effects. I hold myself completely responsible, of course.'
'It wasn't your fault,' declared Rhianne at once. 'I didn't look where I was going.'
One dark brow lifted, reminding her of her emphatic declaration that he was the one to blame. Nevertheless his voice remained perfectly calm. 'But I should have seen you and made allowances. Let us not talk about this now. Let us go inside and get you that cup of tea. Then you can tell me what it is that was troubling you to such an extent that you didn't see me.'
About to retort that there was nothing bothering her, Rhianne changed her mind. He was probably testing her, trying to find out what was wrong. She had no intention of sharing her problems with a stranger.
As they walked into the hotel, his hand on her elbow, Rhianne couldn't help wondering whether she was doing the right thing. He hadn't a clue what was going on in her mind. She wasn't after tea and sympathy. In fact she ought not to be here at all. In a state of panic she pulled away from him and would have ran had he not grabbed her arm.
'You're in no fit state to be going anywhere on your own,' he insisted, his voice deep and gruff and very firm. 'If it's me you're afraid of I can arrange for a female member of staff to be in attendance. I can, however, assure you that it won't be necessary.'
His dark eyes looked deeply into hers, and all Rhianne saw was sincerity. She felt faintly foolish and drew in a deep, unsteady breath. 'That won't be necessary.' There were no other words she could find that wouldn't make her look more idiotic than she already felt.
Today had to be the worst day of her life, and receiving kindness from a total stranger when she'd been so badly let down made her feel both grateful and weepy at the same time. Which was not something she was accustomed to. She rarely cried; she'd had the sort of family life that needed strength of character, and she'd always prided herself that she could handle anything.
Now this man was seeing her at her lowest ebb. It did her pride no good at all, and she felt distinctly uneasy as the lift swept them up to his penthouse suite. She stood with her back to the mirrored walls, her hands pressed against it. She could see a dozen images of both herself and the handsome man, each one receding into the distance. She looked absolutely petrified, her auburn hair tousled, her eyes wide with aftershock and fear.
'Is this your permanent home?' she enquired in an effort to break the silence. She honestly couldn't see why anyone would choose to live in a hotel, but he had called it homeso? 'Or are you here on business?'
'It's both. Business is what's keeping me here, and this suite suits me very well. It has everything I could possibly need.'
He had an aura of great wealthit was in the way he dressed, the way he held himself, his total control and confidence. But there was more than that. Even in her distraught state, Rhianne could see that he was a charmer. She guessed that he probably charmed the hide off every woman he met. He was handsome, suave, good-looking, with a twinkle in his brown eyes that, if she hadn't been in the state she was in, might have affected her senses.
At the moment she was immune to any man, good-looking or not. Rich and powerful or not. She wanted no man in her life for a very long time.
So what was she doing here? Why had she let him persuade her to accompany him? What could he do for her? She wasn't seriously injured, there had been no need for him to make such an offer. And she didn't even know his name. She was accompanying a complete stranger to his suite in a hotel. How foolish was that?
As though he had zoomed in on her thoughts, her companion held out his hand. 'I think it's about time we introduced ourselves. I'm Zarek Diakos. And you are?'
Rhianne smiled weakly. Zarek Diakos! It sounded Greek, and she couldn't help wondering what business had brought him to England. 'I'm Rhianne Pickering,' she said quietly.
The lift stopped, and the doors silently opened. 'Well, Rhianne Pickering. Welcome to my humble abode.'
Nervously she stepped out on to a deep-piled carpet, and he led the way through to a living room that was the size of the whole apartment she shared with her friend. She wasn't even aware that her mouth had fallen open.
There were valuable paintings on the walls, Venetian mirrors, hand-cut crystal chandeliers. Luxury beyond compare.
'You're renting this?' she asked, unaware that her voice was no more than a breathy whisper.
Zarek shrugged. 'You think it's a little ostentatious perhaps? You get what you pay for in my experience. I can afford it, so why not surround myself with beautiful things? I work hard all day; it is a pleasure to come home.'
There it was again, the word home. Rhianne could never imagine calling a place like this home. How could he relax here? There was not a thing out of place. It was a showpiece. Supposedly that was what money did for you. You lost track of home comforts, bought into a lifestyle that suited your image.
She couldn't imagine living anywhere like this, not even for a holiday. How could anyone get comfortable on those overstuffed armchairs? You wouldn't even want to kick off your shoes and leave them lying around for fear of offending the room's intrinsic sense of order.
'Please, sit down,' invited Zarek. 'I'll ring for tea.'
Rhianne perched on the edge of a chair, and, when he had finished issuing his order, Zarek joined her. 'So, tell me how you're really feeling?'
'Bruised,' she answered on a reflective sigh. 'But other than that I'm OK. I don't really need to be here.'
'You were lucky I wasn't driving any faster. You might not have got away with such slight injury. Would you care to tell me what it was that made you walk out into the road like that?'
'I was deep in thought, that's all.'
'Some thoughts,' he said, his brows rising as though he didn't believe her simple explanation. 'Would it have anything to do with the fact that you didn't want me to take you home? Were you running away?'
'Running away?' echoed Rhianne indignantly. He was too astute for words. 'Why would I want to do that?'
'It's the impression you give.'
Rhianne dropped her head into her hands. 'I have a raging headache. Do you have any aspirin?'
Immediately he sprang to his feet.
It had the desired effect. It stopped him asking any more questions. But her reprieve was short-lived. A glass of water and the tablets appeared as if by magic. He handed them to her and stood over her until she had taken them. 'Would you like to lie down?' he enquired.
Lie down? On a bed? In his private suite? A worst-case scenario raced through Rhianne's head. 'No, I'll be all right,' she answered firmly.