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Eighteen months later, Lauren hurried through the openplan office of the big City law firm where she worked, and gave a silent groan when she checked the time on her watch. The staccato tap of her stiletto heels on the tiled floor came to an abrupt halt when Guy Hadlow stepped in front of her.
'The old man has been asking for you since nine o'clock this morning. He wants to see you in his office as soon as you arrive.' Guy gave her a malicious grin. 'You're fortyfive minutes late. Did you fancy a liein? You look like you had a heavy night.'
'Not that my being late is any of your business, but it's snowing in the North London suburbs and my train was cancelled,' Lauren told him tersely.
Like her, Guy was a lawyer at Plessy, Gambrill and Hess, working in the commercial property department. The only son of a wealthy banker, he was used to having what he wanted. Lauren's polite but consistent refusal to date him had revealed an unpleasant side to his nature. The fact that they were now in competition for the same promotion had exacerbated the hostility between them.
As for her having a liein! That would be the day, she thought ruefully. Her tenmonthold son, Mateo, was cutting another tooth, and Lauren couldn't remember the last time she'd had a full night's sleep. Matty had woken at five that morning, and after she had given him his earlymorning bottle and changed his nappy she had showered, dressed, loaded the washing machine and unloaded the dishwasher before bundling him into his allinone suit and into the car.
The icy roads had caused the traffic to crawl, the usual tenminute drive to the daycare nursery had taken double that, and when she had finally arrived she'd had no time to do more than thrust Mateo into the arms of one of the staff before dashing off to the station. The sound of his pitiful sobs had haunted her throughout her journey to work, and she was in no mood to put up with Guy's sarcastic wit.
'Do you know why Mr Gambrill wants to see me?'
Guy shrugged. 'I'm just the messenger boy. But it's a pity you chose this morning to turn up late. That won't help your chances of promotion.'
'I didn't choose to be late,' Lauren snapped, feeling her stomach swoop down towards her toes. Alistair Gambrill headed the commercial property department at PGHa senior partner who did not suffer fools gladly and was a stickler for punctuality. But if he had asked to see her at nine o'clock he could not have known then that she had been delayed, so it was unlikely that he wanted to discuss her timekeeping, Lauren reasoned.
Brow furrowed in a frown as she silently debated the reason for the summons, she dumped her coat and handbag on her desk and hurried along the corridor towards her boss's office suite. His PA was speaking on the phone, and while she waited she made a lightning study of her appearance in the mirror behind the secretary's desk.
Her pillarboxred suit was stylish and defiantly bright on yet another grey February day. Her crisp white blouse added a touch of professionalism, and thankfully there was no sign of the blob of baby sick on her shoulder, which she had scrubbed off on her way out of her flat that morning. But Guy was right. The dark circles beneath her eyes which could not be completely concealed with foundation were an indication of regular sleepless nights.
The joys of being a single mother, she thought heavily. Yet, given the choice, she would not change things. Her son had been unexpected and unplanned, but she loved him with a fierce intensity that was beyond anything she had ever experienced. Just thinking about Matty's darling little face, his shock of black hair and enormous sherrybrown eyes made her heart clench.
The PA put down the phone and gave Lauren a brief smile. 'Go straight in. Mr Gambrill is waiting for you.'
Had there been a tiny emphasis on the word waiting? As she opened the door Lauren made a frantic mental checklist of recently completed assignments, as well as the current commercial property transactions she was working on. Had she made a mistake that she was unaware of? Had a client filed a complaint about her work? The purchase of a new office block for a wellknown City bank was taking longer than expected after problems had arisen with the wording of the lease.
To her surprise Alistair Gambrill sounded delighted to see her, rather than annoyed at her lateness. But she barely heard him. As she entered the office her eyes were riveted on the second man in the room, who rose to his feet and subjected her to an arrogant scrutiny that made her blood run cold.
Her steps faltered. Every muscle in her body clenched in fierce rejection and she could feel the blood drain from her face. This could not be happening, she thought dazedly.
Ramon could not be here, strolling towards her with the easy grace she remembered so well.
Alistair's attention was focused on his guest, so he was oblivious to the fact that his member of staff had whitened to the colour of the pristine blotting pad on his desk. 'Lauren, I'd like you to meet our new client, Ramon Velaquez. Ramon, may I introduce one of PGH's finest commercial property lawyers, Lauren Maitland?'
One of the company's finest lawyers! That was news to her, Lauren thought blankly. But Alistair was smiling at her as if she was his favourite niece. He was clearly keen to impress Ramon, and she sensed his impatience as he waited for her to speak.
She could feel her heart slamming against her ribs. Should she reveal to Alistair that she was already acquainted with the client? She choked back a hysterical laugh. Acquainted seemed such an oldfashioned word, but what else could she saythat she and Ramon had once been lovers? Would he explain that they knew each other?
Somehow she forced her throat to work. 'Mr Velaquez.'
'Ramon, please. Let us dispense with formality.'
His voice was just as Lauren remembered it: deep, melodious, with a faint huskiness that was spinetinglingly sexy. It tugged on her soul like a siren's song, drawing her gaze inexorably to his face.
Matty had his father's eyes, she thought faintly. The likeness between them was almost uncanny. When her son had been born and the midwife had placed him in her arms she had stared in awe at his tiny face and been reminded of Ramon. But her joy had been tinged with an aching sadness that he was not with her to welcome their child into the world. She had never expected to see him again, but now, unbelievably, he was here in Alistair Gambrill's office, and she was overwhelmed by the conflicting emotions that stormed through her.
'I'm pleased to meet you, Lauren.' Only Ramon could make her name sound so sensual, his discernible accent lingering over the vowels like a lover's caress, causing the tiny hairs on her arms to stand on end.
Her face suddenly felt hot as the blood moved in her veins once more. Even worse was the instant effect Ramon had on her body, and she bit back a gasp when she felt her nipples tighten so that they strained uncomfortably against the lacy restriction of her bra.
Why was he here? she wondered fearfully, tension knotting in her stomach. Could he have found out about Mateo? She glanced desperately at Alistair. Everyone at PGH knew she had a son. Had her boss unwittingly revealed her secret by explaining to Ramon that her lateness this morning might have been due to childcare issues?
She fought the frantic urge to turn and flee from Ramon's speculative gaze. Alistair had introduced him as a new client, she reminded herself. He couldn't be here because of Matty. But he had known the name of the law firm she had moved to shortly before they had broken up, and she was sure his presence at PGH was not merely coincidence. Nothing Ramon ever did was unplanned.
What game was he playing? she wondered. But it was easier to go along with it in front of Alistair than to admit to a history that was well and truly in the past. Pride and professionalism were her only weapons against Ramon's lethal charm, and she called on both, forcing her lips to curve into a polite smile as she extended her hand. 'And I am delighted to meet you
' She paused infinitesimally while she steeled herself to say his name. 'Ramon.'
In the few brief seconds before his hand closed around hers she allowed her gaze to roam over him. It was only eighteen months since she had last seen him, but he looked older. Still stunningly handsome, but there were a few faint lines around his eyes, and his aristocratic features seemed harder somehow, his skin drawn tight over his slashing cheekbones. The silky black hair that had once touched his collar was now cropped shortless jetsetting playboy, more billionaire businessman, she mused.
She had read in the newspapers of his father's death a year ago. Ramon was now CEO of Velaquez Conglomerates, which included among its business interests the famous Velaquez winery, a bank, and a chain of fivestar hotels around the world. He must also have assumed the title of Duque de Velaquez, she realised. But then her thoughts scattered as his hand clasped hers, his strong, tanned fingers contrasting starkly with her paler skin, and the contact of flesh on flesh sent an electrical current shooting up her arm and a quiver of reaction down her spine.
Ramon studied Lauren in a leisurely appraisal, frowning slightly as he felt his body's involuntary response to her. His arousal was instant and embarrassingly hard. He was not a testosteronefuelled youth, he reminded himself, irritated to discover that his desire for her had not lessened in the year and a half since he had last seen her.
She was wearing the scarlet suit she had worn the night she had abruptly ended their relationshipalthough today she had teamed it with a demure white blouse rather than the black silk bustier that had displayed her breasts like plump velvety peaches. Her closefitting jacket showed off her slim waist, while her pencilskirt moulded her hips and stopped several inches above her knees to reveal long slender legs in sheer hose. Black patent stiletto heels added another three inches to her height and made her legs seem even longerhe wondered if she still liked to wear stockings.
He inhaled swiftly, and tore his eyes and his overactive imagination away from her legs. Her face was attractive, rather than pretty, oval in shape, with creamy skin, intelligent grey eyes beneath hazel brows. Her dark honeyblonde was hair swept up into a chignon.
What was it about this woman that he found such a turnon? Ramon wondered irritably. He had dated some of the world's most beautiful womenactresses and models whose looks were their fortune. Only this graceful English rose had taken him to the edge of sexual insanity.
The passion they had shared had been mindblowing the best he'd ever known. Although he had refused to admit the intensity of his need for her during their affair. The last eighteen months had passed swiftlyhis father's illness and subsequent death had been followed by a period of mourning, while at the same time he had taken his place at the head of the company, endeavouring to please shareholders and trying to comfort his mother and sisters. There had been little time for introspection, yet memories of Laurenthe silky softness of her hair, her taut, slender body, the soft cries she let out when he made love to her had continued to invade his mind.
She had become a thorn in his flesh, he acknowledged grimly. A persistent ache that he had put down to sexual frustration but which, for some reason, he had been unable to assuage with other women. Now he was back in London to oversee a business projectbut it was also an ideal opportunity to discover if his lingering sexual attraction to his exmistress was real, or a memory that he should have dismissed from his mind months ago.
'Please have a seat, Ramon. I know you have a tight schedule, and we have plenty to discuss.' Alistair Gambrill's voice sliced through the aching silence, although the man seemed unaware of the tension in the room.
Lauren tried to pull her hand free from Ramon's grasp, but he retained his hold for few more seconds, his eyes narrowing on her flushed face before he finally released her.
He already had his answer, Ramon brooded. His desire for Lauren was not imagined. In fact his imagination was enjoying a highly erotic fantasy in which they were alone in the office and she was spread across the desk, with her skirt rucked up around her waist and her long, shapely legs wrapped around him.
Eighteen months ago he had been furious when she had walked out on him, and had vowed to dismiss her from his mind. But he had been unable to forget her. There was still unfinished business between them. The flare of emotion in her eyes when she had first entered Alistair Gambrill's office, and the slight tremble of her hand when she had placed it in his were evidence that she was not as immune to him as her cool smile would have him believe.
Lauren's legs were trembling as the shock of Ramon's unexpected appearance seeped through her, and she sank weakly onto the chair next to him. She had no idea why Alistair had summoned her to meet this new client, but while she was trying to guess the reason the senior lawyer cleared his throat.
'I have studied your remit, Ramon, and it all seems straightforward. As I understand it, Velaquez Conglomerates are looking to purchase a number of suitable commercial properties in London, with the intention of applying for planning permission to run these establishments as wine bars.'
Ramon nodded. 'That's correct. I would like to open two, maybe three bars here in the capital. I already have a shortlist of potential properties suggested by estate agents, and what I require is a commercial property lawyer who
will work exclusively on this project and who has additional expertise in planning and development laws.'
He turned his head and looked directly at Lauren, his predatory smile reminding her of a wolf stalking its prey. 'Put simply, I need you, Lauren. I understand that you have specialised particularly in Town and Country planning matters, and I believe you are best suited to advise me on any potential problems with the properties I am interested in.'