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Another red light. Kelsi Reid braked for the fortieth time, muttering beneath her breath as she reached for the comb she'd slung on the passenger seat.
Probably the rest of the clientele came to the salon looking as if they'd just walked out of anotherlike magazine models, all coiffed, perfumed and perfect. Kelsi hadn't done her hair or make-up. She'd only had time to put in some contacts and wriggle her still-damp-from-the-shower body into her dress.
If only she hadn't fallen asleep at her desk last night as she'd struggled to get all her work done to be able to take today off. If only she hadn't woken up to find her hair trailing in the glass of super sticky, high-energy soda beside her. If only she hadn't frothed the shampoo into such a mass of white bubbles that they'd taken an age to rinse out
If only she didn't have to go at all.
With the beginnings of a caffeine withdrawal headache, she'd hit every single red light on the way to Merivalethe poshest suburb in Christchurchthe home of L'Essence Spa, and the appointment she'd felt too guilty to be able to cancel.
If only she didn't feel like such a fraud.
Her coworkers and boss had booked it for her. Paid for it. A combi birthday present/reward for working so hard. Lovely thought but the last thing she wanted. She hated mixing it with the beautiful womenbecause she was so not one of them. With her horrendous colouring combined with her short stature and the minimal curves that only just stopped her from looking completely boyish, she'd suffered years of taunts as a teenthe freak with the father who hadn't wanted to bother with her either. Fabulous combination made all the more annoying given it had been he who'd donated the gross colour gene in the first place.
She'd got such an inadequacy thing going she'd actually let her old boyfriend take her to a hairdresser and then shopping afterwards so he could purchase her a whole new lookbut she'd still not been pretty enough for him. Years later she still couldn't believe she'd let a guy take control of her appearance like that.
In the end she'd rebelledpeople thought she looked weird? She'd give them weird. She dressed differentlycovering up her almost unnaturally pale skin, covering up her undersized assets, hiding her hair, her eyes, herself. If a man was going to want her, it would be for her mind, or her sense of humour, or fascinating personality or something.
Not that she'd had a date in ages. But she was too busy with work anyway. And it didn't help that her coworkersthe only people she actually knew in this townwere in love with the girls with big guns and even bigger boobs who were the heroines of all the computer games they were so addicted to. In other words, not real.
Kelsi couldn't compete with the living, breathing beauties of this world, let alone the male fantasy ones, so she didn't even try.
But all her workmatesand all of them were malehad thought this was the sort of thing any woman would wanta day of beauty pampering. She knew they'd meant it kindly. They didn't know about the guy who'd stood and watched every snip of the hairdresser's scissors trying to shape her into something he thought was more attractive. Now she cut her hair herself.
Yet she hadn't the heart to tell them she didn't want it. She knew how exclusive and expensive that salon was, how well intentioned they'd been. And, hey, there were options other than haircuts and spray-tansfull body massage being the one that had really appealed. And a professional wax was always welcome.
So here she was. Going there. But even though she'd toned down her clothing for the day, she was still a misfitwith really knotty, home-dyed hair. And she was running late.
She drove the one hundred metres or so to the next set of traffic lights. They were annoyingly close together here in the middle of the city. And they were red again. Of course.
She lifted her arm and targeted the biggest mess of knots at the back of her head. The bird's nest of unruly curls sprang into being any moment it was freed from the product she religiously used. She had a tube of it in her bag and she'd swipe some in as soon as she could get the comb clear through. But that was apparently impossible today. She bent her head forward and ruthlessly pulled on the comb, screwing her eyes shut as it hurt. Yeah, not good for the hair that was so temperamental anyway, but she had no choice. But as she gave an extra vicious tug her whole body jerkedincluding her foot, which had been pushing hard on the brake. It slipped right off the pedal. The car slid forward half a metre.
Right into the pedestrian crossing the road.
Kelsi heard the thump. She heard the cut off curse. She heard her own shriek.
She slammed her foot back on the brake and the car jerked. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands, for a split second frozen, shock riveting her to the seat.
The only thing moving was her stomachrocking violently, its contents swirling round and round and about to be fired up. She flung open the door and tried to race out. The seat belt yanked her back and she banged her hand on the clasp as she fumbled to release it. Finally she got free, slamming the door and running to the front of her car, terrified about what she was going to see. She couldn't feel her legs, couldn't think, couldn't bear it. Had she just killed someone?
'Are you OK? Are you OK? Oh, God.' She struggled to breathe. 'Are you OK?'
It was a man and he was back to standing. Very tall in fact and definitely still alive because his eyes were openand an incredibly vibrant blueand he was breathing. Which was more than she was managing at the moment.
Horrified, she shook her head, unable to believe what had just happened. 'I didn't see you.'
'The pedestrian light was green,' he said dryly.
'You just appeared out of nowhere.' Surely she should have seen him earlier? He was over six feet. Hell, if she'd missed him, had there been anyone else? Was there someone stuck under her car right now? She bent and looked under the wheels.
'Your car is fine.'
'I don't care about that,' she said as she frantically searched. 'Was there just you? I didn't hit anyone else?' She craned her neck to look up at him again. 'Just me.'
'Oh, thank God. I mean ' She gulped, her heart galloping faster. ' you're really OK?'
'Really OK.' He actually laughed. 'Look, you want to move your car? You're holding up the traffic.'
Dazed, she turned and looked at the line of cars behind hers. But most were now moving into the next lane to get around her. So that was OK. Besides, what did a little delayed traffic matter? This was an accident scene. She turned back to him. 'Are you sure you're OK?' Her voice rose to a pitch usually only dogs could hear.
He pointed to the footpath. 'Let's talk there.'
Numbly she took a few steps, but stopped sharply, appalled when she saw him walk. 'Oh, no, you're limping. Why are you limping? Where did I get you? Where does it hurt?'
'No, it's just my knee, it's'
'Your knee?' Her voice rose another three octaves. 'That's where I got you? Oh, let me check.' She dropped to her haunches, reaching out to lift the hem of the long grey shorts he was wearing so she could inspect the damage. She half expected to see screeds of blood coursing down his shin. But there weren't. Instead she was confronted with tanned, muscular calves. Her hand hovered, but the next second he'd stepped out of reach.
'It's fine.' His large hand encircled her upper arm and gently tugged her upwards.
Reluctantly she stood. 'Are you sure?' Had she knocked him right over? She didn't even know. She shuddered as she relived that thudding sound. She'd never had a car accident. Never ever. And now she'd run someone over. 'You don't need a doctor? Please let me take you to the doctor. I think I should take you to a doctor.'
'I don't need a doctor,' he said firmly. 'But you've gone even paler.'
Her stomach heaved more violently as the reality sank in. She slapped her hand to her mouth. 'I could have killed you.'
'You could have. But you didn't.'
She could have killed a child, though. Worst-case scenarios flooded her mindif it had been a toddler walking next to its mother, or a woman with a pram. It was only luck that had made it a six-foot-however-many-inches giant of a man. And even then she'd hurt him. She stared up at him, her eyes blurring, puffing more than when she ran up the thousand stairs to get to her office on the top floor of the building. She'd hurt him.
Both his hands settled on her shoulders. Firmly. 'It's OK. It was nothing.' He smiled and nodded his head as he emphasised each word.
She swallowed. He really was OK? His grip on her was certainly strong and vital and brought her thoughts to a complete halt.
'You were in a hurry to get somewhere?' he asked.
'What? Yes.' She glanced at her watch and his hands dropped. 'Oh. No.' Way too late now.
'It doesn't matter. It absolutely doesn't matter.' And it didn't. 'Let me take you wherever you were going.' She turned and opened the passenger door and pushed him to get in. 'I'm so sorry I hit you. And you're limpingcan I take you to a doctor?'
But she wasn't listening. Instead she pushed him harder, wanting him to get into her car, determined to take him, just to make sure. But it was like trying to move a mountainimpossible. And this mountain wasn't cold, it was warm and broad and very, very solid. Not to mention broadhad she registered that already? She slid her palms wider across the inviting breadth, felt the solidness go even more tautthe powerful muscles suddenly snapped with energy.
His flinch brought her back to reality. OMG she had her hands all over his chest.
'Sorry.' Totally flustered she looked up, her gaze instantly caught and locked by his. His eyes were brilliant sky-blue and his smile shone like the brightest sun. Reality vanished again as in a heartbeat she was lost in the gleaming warm intensity. Heavenly blue, most definitely heavenly. She couldn't blink, couldn't breathe, couldn't think of anything but summer warmth and fun and absolute dreaminess.
She blinked. This was insane. She'd almost run him overwhat was she doing staring at him as if she'd never seen a man before?
Well, she hadn't, at least not one as built as this. Not ever. The only men she saw were those at work and they were all either weedy or obese. Sure, it was a stereotype, but in Kelsi's world it was actually truecomputer geek guys were not gorgeous.
This man before her was most definitely not a computer geek. He had to spend serious hours outside to get both a tan like that and muscles like those, not to mention the sun-lightened streaks at the front of his dark brown hair. Hair that hung over his forehead in a casual style begging to be brushed back by her itchy fingers.
He was all utterly natural gorgeousness. But perhaps not, perhaps it was her contacts making him seem so vibrant. What colour tint had she put in today? She couldn't remember. Had one of them slipped? She blinked again. Tried to marshal her far-flung-on-the-breeze thoughts.
'Tell you what, why don't I drive you?' The question was asked so gently she wasn't sure if he'd actually said it or if she was dreaming. 'Pardon?' She shivered.
His hand lifted to her shoulder again, his thumb stroked her skin, a slow sweep and what she thought he'd just said fled from her head. She shivered againbut she certainly wasn't cold.
'I'm going to drive,' he said very slowly.
He was what? All she knew was that he was smiling and the world was technicolor.
He seemed to be trying to calm her down. She didn't need calming downshe was fine, right? But she was moving, being guided into her own passenger seat by the warm, firm hand on her lower back.
'Um.' No point arguing now. He'd shut the door and was walking to the driver's side. She winced as she saw his limp again. This was crazyshe needed to get a grip on herself and apologise once more. She needed to be helping him, not the other way round.
As soon as he got in she asked him, 'Are you sure you're OK to drive?'
There was a half-laugh in reply. It was a nice laughlow and very, very amused. 'What's your name?'
Kelsi stared at him, the echo of the laugh reverberating through the small space. He looked ridiculous in her car, his knees almost up to his ears. That was because the driver's seat was pushed as far forward as it could go so her feet could reach the pedals. He pushed the seat back to the limit, but even so. The size of him was overwhelming. And he'd said something, hadn't he? Because he was staring back at her expectant-like.
'Sorry?' Her brain had gone far, far offshore into the wide blue yonder.
'Your name?' He leaned across her seat, his torso coming in ultraclose. In a second that strong, broad chest almost touched hers. The action totally struck her dumbnot to mention rendered her immobile. Her body tightened, but not from fear. Oh, no, not fear. This close she could see his symmetrical face, with the hint of shadow on the angular jaw, the gleaming white teeth. She could even feel his heat and he smelt crisp and fresh. She held her breath as he came even closerwas he about to kiss her? Was she going to let this complete stranger kiss her? Mesmerised, she stared into his eyes, his smiling, promise-of-paradise eyes.
Why, yes. Of course she was. There was absolutely no other option she could think of. She couldn't think at all.
But there was a noise right by her ear. Oh. Disappointment crushed as he pulled the seat belt across her body, carefully clicking it into place. Of course he wasn't going to kiss her. Guys like him could kiss a bevy of beauties. He'd never think to kiss her. Oh, but how she'd wanted him to.
Limply she sagged back against the seat. Man, she needed to get a grip. But in the thin summer dress she was wearing, her body had gone all goose-bumpy.