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It wasn't every day of the week that you saw a librarian carrying a package on her head that looked bigger than she was, struggling to get off a London tube train at eleven o'clock in the morning.
Especially when that librarian had sun-streaked blond corkscrew hair that fell around her shoulders in long, wavy tendrils.
As he stepped out onto the platform, Kyle Munroe glanced back to the next carriage just in time to see the librarian stretch up on tiptoes, lift the wide bag over the heads of her fellow passengers, then thrust it forward to use as a wedge through the crush of travellers rushing past her to board the train. They had little regard for anyone who might dare to get in their way.
Seconds before the train door beeped closed behind her, the blonde had to practically jump onto the platform, before snatching the package out of the jaws of the sliding doors with such force that she almost fell backwards as the tube sped away.
The librarian tried to restore her dignity by tugging the jacket of her dove-grey skirt suit a little lower, and lifting her cute, small nose a little higher, before hoisting the straps of what looked like an artist's portfolio case over her neck and shoulder. Only the bag was still dragging on the floor, so she forgot the straps and went for Plan B. This involved holding the edges of the case with her fingertips, arms at full stretch, while trying to hitch the wide strap around her neck with one shoulderblade and her chin.
After two trial steps in amazingly rickety-looking heels, she strode forward, the portfolio flapping against her chest, head high, eyes set on her goal—the escalator. Only Plan B let her down, and she was reduced to sliding, dragging and cajoling her oversized package towards the escalator.
Perhaps she was actually a schoolteacher, and any second now she would tell the unruly portfolio to go and sit in the naughty corner?
Nope—she was definitely a librarian. The only woman he had ever seen wearing that kind of dull grey skirt suit by choice had been the technical librarian at his medical school. That particular lady could dance a mean mambo, and was a world expert on parasitic diseases, but she still chose those hideous suits!
Then again, she had never, ever worn dove-grey mules below legs like the ones trying to walk ahead of him at that minute—the kind of legs that forced the first smile of the day from his lips.
So what if he was a leg man and proud of it?
This was turning out to be the high point of a journey that had started in squalor and sunshine a long way from London. Three hours across the mountains in a bone-shaking Jeep with bald tyres had been followed by a very long flight in economy class, surrounded by wonderful but exhausted screaming kids. Coming up with games and toys to amuse them had been fun—for the first couple of hours.
It had been a long day, and his body clock was starting to kick in. Perhaps it was time to show his appreciation for the lady who had finally given him something to smile about?
With his long athletic legs, and her shorter, high-heeled ones, it only took Kyle a few steps to catch up with her.
'Do you need any help with that?' he asked, trying to sound casual and non-threatening.
The librarian didn't break stride as she took a sideways glance at his six feet one of athletic hunkiness—or at least that was how the TV company liked to describe him. From the stunned look in her pale blue eyes, she had decided that he was clearly not to be trusted.
He tried to act casual by running a few fingers through his shaggy, dark brown, now mostly dust encrusted hair. Hmm. Not his best look. Perhaps he should have made the time to take a shower and change his clothes at the airport?
'I'm fine, but thank you for offering.'
Except the words were barely out of her mouth before the portfolio slid off her shoulder and Kyle had to reach forward to stop it from being trampled underfoot by the crush of passengers trying to cram onto the escalator.
As they were swept along in the rush, the librarian took a sharp intake of breath and clutched onto the handrail. Her other hand was pressed to her throat, where a red welt showed that the weight of the bag was very far from being fine.
'It's okay—I've got it,' Kyle reassured her. 'Maybe I could carry it as far as the barrier? How about that?'
'Okay, just to the barrier.'
She half turned around to face him, and he was struck by her closed-mouth smile. His medical head noticed immediately that her right eye was flecked with deeper shades of blue than the other. Whatever she saw in his face he could only guess, but the half-smile creased the corner of a wide, plump mouth set in creamy skin sprinkled with freckles over her nose and cheeks. Like cinnamon powder on whipped cream.
Freckles. Why did she have to have freckles? He almost groaned. Doomed.
'I see that you've flown from Delhi. That's a long flight. Been there on holiday?' she asked, her dainty head tipped slightly in the cutest, loveliest, most freckly pose.
Drat! The airline tags were still attached to his old rucksack!
'Just passing through,' he replied, trying to sound flippant, before nodding over her shoulder. 'Here we go.'
The librarian suddenly realised that they were at the top of the escalator, and whipped around so that she could step to one side and stay within touching distance of her precious package.
He took a firmer grip on what felt like a thin wooden frame—not heavy, but an awkward size and shape—and casually swept the handles over one shoulder.
'What sort of picture is this?' he asked as he fumbled for his ticket, half expecting to hear that it was some Old Master bound for restoration by learned scholars in an ancient London guild.
'Orchids. Yellow orchids, to be exact.' She paused and nodded. 'I'm sure I can manage from here. It's only a short bus ride to the South Bank. Sorry to have been such a nuisance.'
'No apology necessary.' Kyle was just about to pass the portfolio over when he paused. 'Did you say the South Bank? That's where I'm headed. Why don't we share a cab?' He hoisted the bag a little higher. 'The bus could be a problem.'
Even though she had been the first to mention her destination, she hesitated, clearly weighing up the benefits of getting there in one piece against the danger from a scruffy potential stalker and orchid-picture thief. Kyle stared at her silence as she bit her lower lip before going for it.
'Um, okay. Yes, that would be great. Thank you. Normally I would walk along the Embankment—but not in these shoes, carrying that. And I am rather late.'
'Me too. Shall we risk it?'
That seemed to stun her for a few seconds, but with a gentle nod, the blonde climbed the steps out of the station. The crush of other pedestrians and the awkward shape of the portfolio conspired together to thwart most of Kyle's view of the spectacular legs in action on the stairs, but the little he did see was well worth the effort.
It took only minutes to clamber out into the noise and chaos of the city street. After eighteen months in the mountains he had forgotten what a physical assault on the senses it all was, and the girl in the grey suit had hailed a black cab before he'd pulled himself together.
Kyle made a point of swinging the package onto the backseat, then holding open the door for her before jumping in himself with his rucksack.
While he knew as much about London art galleries as she probably did about yaks, the name the librarian gave to their driver sounded familiar enough for him to be impressed.
As their cab took off into the traffic she collapsed back against her seat and slowly exhaled, her arm wrapped protectively around the edge of the portfolio.
'Are there a lot of career opportunities for art couriers these days?'
She looked across at him as though she had almost forgotten that he was there.
'Oh, this is only a sideline,' she replied in a matter-of-fact voice. 'My real job is in art forgery. That's where the real money is.' She leant closer and whispered, 'But I'm relying on you to keep my secret to yourself.'
'My lips are sealed. Best of luck in prison.'
The blue eyes crinkled up into a smile as she took in his filthy jacket, two-day stubble and the trousers that had last seen water two weeks earlier after an emergency Caesarean section on a riverbank.
'Passing through Delhi? That sounds like a lot of fun. Is it still warm and sunny there?' she asked in a light-hearted voice.
'Very,' he replied with a sigh. 'At this time of year they're getting ready for Diwali—the festival of lights. I'm sorry I'm missing that! It's a fantastic city. Do you know it?'
'Not personally,' she replied, then gave him a wistful smile. 'But people have told me about the wonderful colours and the atmosphere. I've always wanted to go there. Maybe one day,' she added, shrugging her shoulders. Then the blonde gestured towards his jacket with her head. 'I can see that you've spent time in the mountains. Let me guess. Have you been climbing or hiking?'
Wow. She really was observant. It was a pity that the truth was far too complicated, because ideally he would have loved to find the time to do precisely those things. But he had never got the chance.
'Not even close. What makes you think that I've been in the mountains?'
She grinned back before replying. 'I noticed that you're wearing a white Buddhist scarf, and you have Hindi graffiti scribbled on your arm.'
Kyle stared down at the plaster cast encasing his left wrist, which was completely covered with colourful messages. Um. Perhaps some of them were a bit crude.
'You can read Nepali?' he asked, with genuine admiration in his voice.
'No, but I do recognise the Hindi characters,' she held up one hand, palm forward. 'And I don't need a translation, if it's all the same to you.'
'Probably just as well. I'm Kyle, by the way.'
He reached forward with his right hand, and she glanced at it for a second before giving it a firm, quick shake with small, thin, cool fingers. His rough fingertips rasped in contact with her delicate skin. Perhaps that was why she pulled back immediately, as the cab slowed for some lights, and started scrabbling about in her messenger bag?
'I could give you my name,' she replied, 'but I am on a very important mission where secrecy is vital. That sort of personal information is strictly on a need-to-know basis. This should cover my share of the cab fare.'
Kyle looked at the pile of coins she had passed him in bewilderment, and wondered if cab fares had increased at the same rate as female sass since he had been away.
'A mission at the art gallery? Ah. Of course. The old forgery trade.' He tapped his nose twice. 'Your secret is safe. What are you running late for?'
'I have to drop this off and then make a twelve-o'clock appointment. I'm cutting it fine.' She glanced at her watch, and noticed that he was not wearing one. 'How about you, Kyle? What are you late for? Oh, sorry—another time. This is the gallery.'
She flashed a beaming smile in his direction as the cab slowed in front of an elegant glass-fronted building. 'It's been a pleasure, and thanks again. I hope I haven't delayed you too much.'
'Wait,' Kyle replied, pushing the bag towards her. 'One question. Please? I have to know. Are you a librarian, by any chance?'
She stopped trying to drag the portfolio over her shoulder and looked at him wide-eyed for a second, before breaking into the kind of warm smile that stopped traffic and turned curly haired, blond librarians into supermodels.
'Not even close.' And with that she closed the cab door and gave him a regal wave, before striding away without looking back.
Twenty minutes later Lulu Hamilton sauntered down the wide South Bank pavement as best as she could in her godmother Emma's dove-grey mules, and revelled in the sights and smells of the crisp, late-October day.
As a beam of bright sunshine broke through the clouds she dropped her head back and closed her eyes to enjoy the moment.
Not bad, girl. Not bad at all. She had reached the gallery right on time. The job was done. It had meant sharing a taxi with a cheeky tourist with a killer smile, but for once her risky decision had paid off and she had delivered her painting in one piece.
The yellow orchid acrylic was destined for a luxury boutique in the city. The gallery was delighted, the client was thrilled, and best of all, she had been paid a bonus for delivering the piece in time for their grand opening. If she kept to a tight budget, the cheque in her pocket would see her through the first few months of art college. Her dream had just come one step closer.
She inhaled deeply, soaking in the sights and smells of the city. Ten years ago she had been a student here, before she'd left university to take care of her father after her mother was killed. She rarely came back. It was too painful to think about what could have been.
Not any longer. That was then and this was now.
For the first time in many years she was finally moving forward with her life and putting the past behind her. So what if it was a baby step, and she had a few steep hills head? Mountains, even? She was moving forward and she was doing it through her own hard work.
One thing was certain. She had forgotten how crowded the city was—and how noisy. The traffic din was worse than ever. The cacophony of mixed fragments of sound from buses, taxicabs, cars and people seemed to collide inside her brain.
Well, that was something she could control!
In one smooth, well-practised motion, her fingertips smoothed her shoulder-length hair down over her left ear and, oblivious to anyone else, she turned off the small digital hearing aid fitted behind it.
That was better. Much better.
Brightly coloured leaves in amazing shades of scarlet and russet, from the maples and London plane trees which lined the Embankment, blew against her legs in the fresh breeze from the Thames.
She loved autumn—it had always been her favourite season.