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'Who is that guy?'
Sonia Leyton came to where Isobel was trying to stop one of the drunker guests from pouring another bottle of vodka into the punch and nudged her arm.
'Who is he?' she persisted, when Isobel seemed to be ignoring her. 'Come on, sweetie. You must know. You invited him.'
'Correction—Julia invited him,' said Isobel shortly, succeeding in blocking Lance Bliss from turning an already potent mix into pure dynamite.
'You're no fun,' he muttered, raising the open bottle to his lips and taking a generous slug. 'Lighten up, can't you? This is supposed to be a party.'
'But not a wake,' retorted Isobel, guessing what that amount of undiluted alcohol could do. 'Honestly, if I'd known.'
'You still haven't told me who that guy is,' protested Sonia, her mind fixed on a single track. 'You might not have invited him yourself, but it's your apartment. You must know who Julia asked to come.'
Isobel expelled a weary breath and glanced in the direction Sonia was indicating—though it wasn't entirely necessary. She'd noticed the man as soon as Julia had let him in. Their eyes had met very briefly, and she'd told herself the reaction she'd had was because he didn't look English. But the real truth was he was the most disturbingly attractive man she'd ever seen.
Tall and dark—younger than Julia, she suspected—with thick, straight hair that overlapped his collar and fell in a deep swathe across his forehead. She didn't know what colour his eyes were, but she was fairly sure they'd be dark too, complementing rather harsh features that were essentially masculine.
Right now, he was slouched on the window sill across the room, one lean, brown hand resting on his thigh, the other holding an open bottle of beer. But he didn't seem interested in the beer or the party, or in the woman whose arm was draped rather possessively over his shoulder.
'I don't know his name,' said Isobel now, wondering why Sonia didn't just go and ask Julia who he was. Though the answer to that was fairly obvious: Julia wouldn't like Sonia wading in on her territory.
'Damn!' Sonia looked disappointed now. 'I'm fairly sure I've seen him before.' She tucked her elbow into her palm and tapped her lips with a scarlet-tipped finger. 'Was it at the Hampdens' last week? Oh, but you wouldn't know,' she added, giving Isobel a rather scornful onceover. 'You don't like parties, do you?'
'Not parties like this,' agreed Isobel rather drily, half wishing she'd never agreed to Julia's request. But her apartment was so much bigger than Julia's flat, and it would have been churlish to turn her friend away.
'Oh, well, I'll have to go and find out for myself,' remarked Sonia, grabbing a glass and helping herself to a generous measure of the punch. 'Mmm; is there any alcohol in this stuff? It doesn't have much of a kick.'
Isobel shook her head, not bothering to answer. If Sonia thought the punch was weak, she was obviously used to drinking a far stronger brew. Isobel knew for a fact that Julia had added a full bottle of rum to the mixture of wine and fruit juice she'd prepared. And that was only what she knew about. She wouldn't have put it past her friend to spike the punch with some other spirit.
Now, looking round the room, she could see quite a few of the guests were looking the worse for wear. She'd warned her friend that there were to be no drugs, but she had to wonder if some of the unsteady legs and glassy eyes might be due to more than just a surfeit of spirits.
The music, too, was definitely louder. Someone had substituted hard rap for the rock 'n' roll that Julia had chosen earlier. Watching the guests gyrating about the wooden floor, Isobel felt decidedly old, though she couldn't remember ever behaving so promiscuously, even when she'd been a teenager. And how sad was that?
Nevertheless, she had to live here long after the party was over, and she was well aware that her neighbours in this block of apartments in Mortimer Court wouldn't stand for it if the party turned into a rave. Her immediate neighbour, Mrs Lytton-Smythe, had already protested about the amount of cars blocking entry to the underground garage, and the two doctors who occupied the apartment below Isobel's had patients to attend to in the morning.
Julia had suggested Isobel invite all her neighbours to the party in an effort to defuse any objections, but that really wasn't a goer. None of Isobel's neighbours would have wanted to attend the noisy binge this was turning out to be.
Sighing, Isobel left the large room that served as both living and dining rooms in normal circumstances and headed into the small kitchen next door. The sound of music was less intrusive here, and she gazed at the debris of empty cans, wine bottles and the remains of the bought-in buffet Julia's guests had only picked at earlier. A glance at her watch told her it was already after midnight, and she wondered how long her friend expected the party to last.
Isobel was tired. She'd been up since half-past six that morning, trying to finish the piece about a well-known make-up artist that she'd promised her editor would be on her desk the next morning. Or rather this morning, she amended, wondering if she ought to have asked Julia to postpone her party until the end of the week. But today—or rather yesterday—had been Julia's thirtieth birthday and it would have been mean to deny her having it on the day.
Isobel sighed again as she turned, and then sucked in a startled breath at the sight of a man standing in the doorway, his shoulder propped against the jamb; it was the man Sonia had been asking about. He was lean and unquestionably sexy, in tight-fitting jeans and a black silk shirt, the sleeves rolled back over forearms liberally spread with fine, dark hair.
'Oh,' she said a little jerkily, unable to use his name because she didn't know it. 'Hi.' She paused. 'Do you need something?'
'Nao quero nada, obrigado,'he said, his voice low and disturbingly sensual. 'I want nothing,' he added, his accent spiking her nerves. 'I was looking for you.'
'Me!' Isobel couldn't have been more surprised. In the normal way, she had little in common with Julia's friends. She and Julia had attended university together, but for more than five years they'd seen little of one another, and it was only since Isobel had moved back to London that they'd renewed their friendship.
'Sim—you,' he agreed, with a smile that gave his words a disarming intimacy. 'I think, like me, you are—como se diz?—bored with these people, nao?'
Isobel frowned. So he was Portuguese, she thought, recognising the odd word in his language. But Julia wouldn't be pleased if she could hear what he was saying. She'd spent the whole evening hanging on his every word.
'I was just—tidying up,' she said at last, unable to believe he had come out here especially to see her. For heaven's sake, he didn't look the kind of man who'd be interested in someone so ordinary. She was attractive enough for a young woman who'd been married and separated all in the space of a couple of years, but she was certainly not a leggy blonde like Julia or Sonia.
'Que?' The man frowned. 'I do not believe you are just the—um—domestico.'
'Oh, no.' Isobel had to smile at that. 'This is my apartment, actually. Julia—your girlfriend…' It was hard to describe their relationship in those terms, she found, and why was that? 'She's a friend.'
'Ah.' He rested his head against the frame of the door for a moment, studying her with eyes that she now saw were an odd shade of amber. Framed by thick, black lashes, they caused a shivery feeling inside her, and she chided herself impatiently at the realisation that it was the first time she'd been attracted to a man since David had walked out on her.
He straightened and moved further into the room, and her eyes widened, half in apprehension, half with a sense of anticipation she'd never felt before. Pull yourself together, Belle, she instructed, deciding she must have sampled too much of the punch. But all he did was set the beer bottle he'd been carrying on the drainer, his lips quirking in amusement as if he noticed her not-so-subtle reaction.
Without going back to his original position, he paused and then said, 'So, you must be Isobel, nao?'
'Yes!' Isobel inclined her head a little breathlessly. 'Isobel Jameson.' She hesitated. 'And you are…?'
'My name is Alejandro. Alejandro Cabral,' he said, with a slight bow of his head. 'Muito prazer.'
'Oh, um, how do you do?' Isobel was taken aback when he held out his hand towards her. She wasn't used to such a formal introduction, though she guessed where he came from the old courtesies still survived.
'I am very well, obrigado, Ms Jameson,' he responded softly, taking the hand she offered in return and raising it to his lips.
But, although Isobel half-expected him to touch his lips to her knuckles, Alejandro turned her hand over and bestowed a warm kiss to her palm. And briefly she was almost sure she felt his tongue brush against her skin, although she was so bemused by the whole incident she might well have imagined it.
She would have withdrawn her hand immediately, and scrubbed her palm over the seam of her cream cotton trousers and pretended the kiss had never happened, but he didn't let her go. Instead, he continued to hold her hand, gazing intently into her eyes. And she knew he knew he was disconcerting her, as much by his audacity as by her unwilling response.
'You may call me Alejandro,' he interrupted huskily, and her mouth was suddenly dry. 'So long as you permit me to call you Isobel. That is such a beautiful name. My grandmother's name is Isobella. It is a very popular name in my country.'
Isobel ran her tongue over her dry lips, shaking her head half in bemusement, half in frustration. She didn't know where he'd learned his skills in seduction, but she doubted it was here. She guessed he was—what?—twenty-five or twenty-six. And she was almost thirty. Yet he had a way of making her feel inexperienced and out of her depth.
'You can call me what you like, er, Alejandro,' she said. As long as you let go of my hand.' She managed to pull her fingers free and forced a smile. 'I gather you're not enjoying the party?'
He shrugged, broad shoulders moving sinuously beneath the expensive cloth of his shirt. 'Are you?' he countered, making no attempt to give her some space. He gestured about him. 'Is that why you are hiding in here?'
Isobel arched brows that were several shades darker than her honey-streaked hair. 'I'm not hiding,' she assured him firmly. 'If I were, I'm not making a very good job of it, am I?'
Alejandro regarded her between narrowed lids. 'We could hide together,' he suggested, putting out a hand and allowing a finger to trace the curve of her face from lip to jaw. 'Would you like that?'
Isobel took an involuntary step backwards. 'No. I wouldn't like that!' she exclaimed, impatient with herself now for allowing this to happen. Whatever impression she'd given, she wasn't interested in a one-night stand. Let Julia satisfy his libido. She had no wish to get involved with anyone else.
But unfortunately there was an empty crate positioned right behind her. Almost losing her balance, Isobel grabbed the counter for support, her fingertips accidently brushing against the taut muscles of his midriff. Immediately, she felt the rush of heat she'd known when he'd touched her a few moments earlier but, when he would have reached to steady her, she hastily put some distance between them.
'I think you ought to go back to the party, Mr Cabral,' she said, despite the fact that she'd called him Alejandro already. 'I'm sure Julia must be wondering where you are.'
'And that is of importance why?' he queried, his tone deepening intimately.
'Well, because it's probably very important to Julia,' said Isobel tersely. Then, in an effort to lighten the conversation, 'I expect you have lots of parties in Portugal.'
He shrugged, moving back to spread his arms along the counter behind him. 'I do not have parties in Portugal,' he remarked drily. 'I am not Portuguese. I am Brazilian.'
Isobel's lips parted, and for a moment she forgot her ankle, stinging courtesy of the beer crate, and the fact that she'd been trying to send him away. Her eyes widening, she said, 'How fascinating! I've always wanted to visit South America.'
She didn't know what that meant, but she hurried on regardless. 'So, are you working in London? Are you in advertising too?'
'Ah, nao.' His lips twisted mockingly. Advertising myself is not my thing.'
'I see,' said Isobel, though secretly she thought it was a pity. She could quite see him walking naked out of a foaming ocean, promoting some sexy fragrance for men. 'Um…so, what do you do?' she hurried on, afraid the direction her thoughts were taking might show in her eyes. Are you on holiday?'
'De ferias?' He sounded amused. And then, seeing her look of incomprehension, he explained, 'On holiday? In England—in November? Acho que nao. I do not think so.'
'Oh, well…' Isobel told herself she wasn't that interested, and reached for the bottle he'd discarded earlier. But it wasn't until after she'd snatched it up that she realised it was still half full. Beer splashed stickily onto her shirt and she was obliged to stifle an oath. 'Damn it,' she said, unable to resist the expletive. 'You should have warned me you hadn't finished.'
'Muitapena!'Alejandro pushed himself away from the unit and took the offending bottle from her unresisting grasp. 'I am so sorry,' he said, tossing it into the sink behind her. He gazed down at the damp fabric clinging to and outlining the lacy cup of her half-bra. 'What can I do to help?' His fingers moved to the buttons on her shirt. 'Por favor, let me take this off.'
Isobel gasped in disbelief, smacking his hand away. 'What do you think you're doing?' she protested. His fingers looked so alien against the white linen. 'Don't do that! What if someone came in?'
Alejandro's mouth took on a decidedly sensual curve, but he obediently shifted his hands to the narrow bones of her shoulders. And that is the only reason you want me to stop?' he queried, those curious amber eyes burning with a golden fire. 'Muito bem.'
Isobel found she was actually trembling, and it infuriated her. For heaven's sake, what was wrong with her? Even when she and David had first got together she'd never felt quite so vulnerable. Or so exhilarated, she admitted painfully.
'I think you should let go of me, Mr Cabral,' she said stiffly. 'I'm afraid you've got the wrong impression.'