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'You can't do this. What if you get caught? He could have you arrested.'
Daisy Dean paused in the process of scoping out her neighbour's ludicrously high garden wall and slanted her best friend, Juno, a long-suffering look.
'He won't catch me,' Daisy replied in the same hushed tones. 'I'm practically invisible with all this gear on.'
She looked down at the clothes she'd borrowed from her fellow tenants at the Bedsit Co-op next door. Goodness, she looked like Tinkerbell the Terminator decked out in fourteen-year-old Cal's sagging black Levi's, his tiny mother Jacie's navy blue polo neck and Juno's two-sizes-too-small bovver boots.
She'd never been this invisible in her entire life. The one thing Daisy had inherited from her reckless and irresponsible mother was Lily Dean's in-your-face dress sense. Daisy didn't do monotonesand she didn't believe in hiding her light under a bushel.
She frowned. Except when she was on a mission to find her landlady's missing cat.
'Stop worrying, Juno, and give me the beanie.' She held out her hand and stared back up at the wall, which seemed to have grown several feet since she'd last looked at it. 'You'll have to give me a boost.'
Juno groaned, slapping the black woollen cap into Daisy's outstretched palm. 'This better not make me an accessory after the fact or something.' She bent over and looped her fingers together in a sling.
'Don't be silly.' Daisy shoved her curls under the cap and tugged it over her ears. 'It's not a crime. Not really.'
'Of course it's a crime.' Juno straightened from her crouch, her round, pretty face looking like the good fairy in a strop. 'It's called trespassing.'
'These are extenuating circumstances,' Daisy whispered as a picture of their landlady Mrs Valdermeyer's distraught face popped into her mind. 'Mr Pootles has been missing for well over a fortnight. And our antisocial new neighbour's the only one within a mile radius who hasn't had the decency to search his back garden.' She propped her hands on her hips. 'Mr Pootles could be starving to death and it's up to us to rescue him.'
'Maybe he looked and didn't find anything?' Juno said, her voice rising in desperation.
'I doubt that. Believe me, he's not the type to lose sleep over a missing cat.'
'How do you know? You've never even met the guy,' Juno murmured, wedging the tiniest slither of doubt into Daisy's crusading zeal.
'That's only because he's been avoiding us,' Daisy pointed out, the slither dissolving.
Their mysterious new neighbour had bought the double-fronted Georgian wreck three months ago, and had managed to gut it and rehab it in record time. But despite all Daisy's overtures since he'd moved in two weeks agothe note she'd posted through his door and the message she'd relayed to his cleaning ladyhe'd made no attempt to greet his neighbours at Mrs Valdermeyer's Bedsit Co-operative. Or join the search for the missing Mr Pootles.
In fact he'd been downright rude. When she'd dropped off a plate of her special home-made brownies the day before in a last ditch attempt to get his attention, he hadn't even returned the plate, let alone thanked her for them. Clearly the man was too rich and self-centred to have any time for the likes of themor their problems.
And then there were his dark, striking good looks to be considered. 'All you have to do is look at him,' Daisy continued, 'to see he's a you-know-what-hole with a capital A.'
Okay, so she'd only caught glimpses of the guy as he was striding down his front steps towards the snazzy maroon gas-guzzler he kept parked out front. At least six feet two, leanly muscled and what she guessed most people would term ruggedly handsome, the guy was what she termed full of himself. Even from a distance he radiated enough testosterone to make a woman's ovaries stand up and take notice and she was sure he knew it.
Not that Daisy's ovaries had taken any notice, of course. Well, not much anyway.
Luckily for Daisy, she was now completely immune to men like her new neighbour. Arrogant, self-absorbed charmers who thought of women as playthings. Men like Gary, who'd sidled into her life a year ago with his come-hither smile, his designer suits and his clever hands and sidled right back out again three months later taking a good portion of her pride and a tiny chunk of her heart with him.
Daisy had made a pact with herself then and therethat she'd never fall prey to some good-looking playboy again. What she needed was a nice regular guy. A man of substance and integrity, who would come to love her and respect her, who wanted the same things out of life she wanted and preferably didn't know the difference between a designer label and a supermarket own brand.
Juno gave an irritated huff, interrupting Daisy's moment of truth. 'I still don't understand why you haven't just asked the guy about that stupid cat.'
A pulse of heat pumped under Daisy's skin. 'I tried to catch him the few times I spotted him, but he drives off so fast I would have had to be an Olympic sprinter.'
She'd suffer the tortures of hell before she'd admit the truth. That she'd been the tiniest bit intimidated by him, enough not to relish confronting him in person.
Juno sighed and bent down, linking her fingers together. 'Fine, but don't blame me if you get done for breaking and entering.'
'Stop panicking.' Daisy placed a foot in Juno's palms. 'I'm sure he's not even home. His Jeep's not parked out front. I checked.'
If she'd thought for a moment he might actually be in residence the butterflies waltzing about in her belly would have started pogoing like punk rockers. 'I'll be super-discreet. He'll never even know I was there.'
'There's one teeny-weeny problem with that scenario,' Juno said dryly. 'You don't do discreet, remember.'
'I can if I'm desperate,' Daisy replied. Or at least she'd do her best.
Ignoring Juno's derisive snort, Daisy reached up to climb the wall and felt the skintight polo neck rise up her midriff. She looked down to see a wide strip of white flesh reflecting in the streetlamp opposite and caught a glimpse of her red satin undies where the jeans sagged.
'Blast.' She dropped her arm and bounced down.
'What's the matter now?' Juno whispered.
'My tummy shows when I lift my arms.'
Daisy frowned at her friend. 'So it totally ruins the camouflage effect.' She tapped her finger on her bottom lip. 'I know, I'll take off my bra.'
'What on earth for?' Juno snapped, getting more agitated by the second.
'The material's catching on the laceit won't rise up as much.'
'But you can't,' Juno replied. 'You'll bounce.'
'It'll only be for a minute.' Daisy unclipped the bra and wriggled it out of one sleeve. She passed the much-loved concoction of satin, lace and underwiring to Juno.
Juno dangled it from her fingertips. 'What is this obsession you have with hooker underwear?'
'You're just jealous,' Daisy replied, turning back to the wall. Juno had always had a bit of a complex about her barely B-cups in Daisy's opinion.
She put her foot in Juno's sling and felt her breasts sway erotically under the confining fabric. Thank goodness no one would get close enough to spot her unfettered state. She'd always been proud to call herself a feminist, but she was way too well endowed to be one of the burn-your-bra variety.
'Right.' Daisy took a deep breath of the heavy, honeysuckle-flavoured air. 'I'm off.'
Grabbing hold of the top, she hauled herself up, her nipples tightening as she rubbed against the brick. Throwing her leg over, she straddled the wall with a soft grunt.
She peered through the leaves of a large chestnut tree and scanned the shadows of their neighbour's garden. Moonlight reflected off the windows at the back of the house. Daisy let out the breath she'd been holding. Phew, he definitely wasn't in.
'I still can't believe you're actually going to do this.' Juno scowled up at her from the shrubbery.
'We owe this to Mrs Valdermeyeryou know how much she adores that cat,' she whispered from her vantage position on the wall.
The truth was Daisy knew she owed her landlady much more than just a promise to find her cat.
When her mother, Lily, had announced she had found 'the one' again eight years ago, Daisy had opted to stay put. She'd been sixteen, alone in London and terrified and Mrs Valdermeyer had come to her rescue. Mrs Valdermeyer had given her a home, and a security she'd never known beforewhich meant Daisy owed her landlady more than she could ever repay. And Daisy always paid her debts.
'And don't forget,' Daisy said urgently, warming to her subject, 'Mrs V could have sold the Co-op to developers a thousand times over and become a rich woman, but she hasn't. Because we're like family to her. And family stick together.'
At least Daisy had always felt they ought to. If she'd ever had brothers and sisters and a mum who was even halfway reliable she was sure that was how her own family would have been.
She looked back at the garden, gulped down the apprehension tightening her throat.
'I don't think Mrs Valdermeyer would expect you to get arrested,' Juno whispered in the darkness. And don't forget the scar on that guy's face. He doesn't look like the type who can take a joke.'
Daisy leaned forward, ready to slide down the other side of the wall. She stopped. Okay, maybe that scar was a bit of a worry. 'Do me a favourif I don't come back in an hour, call the police.'
She could just make out Juno's muttered words as she edged herself down into the darkness.
'What for? So they can cart you off to jail?'
'Forget it, I'm not conjuring up a fianc e just to keep Melrose sweet.' Connor Brody tucked the phone into the crook of his shoulder and pulled the damp towel off his hips.
'He went ballistic after the dinner party,' Daniel Ellis, his business manager, replied, the panic in his voice clear all the way down the phone line from New York. 'I'm not joking, Con. He accused you of trying to seduce Mitzi. He's threatening to lose the deal.'
Connor grabbed the sweat pants folded over the back of the sofa and tugged them on one-handed, cursing the headache that had been brewing all dayand Mitzi Melrose, a woman he never wanted to see again in this lifetime.
'She stuck her foot in my crotch under the table, Dan, not the other way around,' Connor growled, annoyed all over again by Mitzi's less-than-subtle attempts at seduction.
Not that Connor minded women who took the initiative, but Eldridge Melrose's trophy wife had been coming on to him all evening and he'd made it pretty damn clear he wasn't interested. He didn't date married women, especially married women joined for better or worse to the billionaire property tycoon he was in the middle of a crucial deal with. Plus he'd never been attracted to women with more Botox and silicone in their body than common sense. But good old Mitzi had refused to take the hint and this was the result. A deal he'd been working on for months was in danger of going belly up through no fault of his.
'Come on, Con. If he backs out of the deal now we're back to square one.'
Connor walked across the darkened living room to the bar by the floor-to-ceiling windows, Danny's pleading whine not doing a damn thing for his headache. He rubbed his throbbing temple and splashed some whiskey into a shot glass. 'I'm not about to pretend to be engaged just to satisfy Melrose's delusions about his oversexed wife,' he rasped. 'Deal or no deal.'
Connor savoured the peaty scent of the expensive maltso different from the smell of stale porter that had permeated his childhoodand slugged it back. The expensive liquor warmed his sore throat and reminded him how far he'd come. He'd once had to do things he wasn't proud of to survive, to get out. The stakes would have to be a lot higher than a simple business deal before he'd compromise his integrity like that again.
'Damn, Con, come off it.' Danny was still whining. 'You're blowing this way out of proportion. You must have a ton of women in your little black book who'd kill to spend two weeks at The Waldorf posing as your beloved. And I don't see it being any big hardship for you either.'
'I don't have a little black book.' Connor gave a gruff chuckle. 'Danny, what era are you living in? And even if I did, there's not one of the women I've dated who wouldn't take the request the wrong way. You give a woman a diamond ring, she's going to get ideas no matter what you tell her.'
Hadn't he gone through the mother of all break-ups only two months ago because he'd believed Rachel when she'd said she wasn't looking for anything serious? Just good sex and a good time. He'd thought they were both on the same page only to discover Rachel was in a whole different booka book with wedding bells and baby booties on the cover.
Connor shuddered, metal spikes stabbing at his temples. No way was he opening himself up to that horror show again.
'I can't believe you'd throw this deal away when the solution's so simple.'
Connor heard Danny's pained huff, and decided he'd had enough of the whole debate.
'Believe it.' He put the glass down on the bar, winced as the slight tap reverberated in his sore head. 'I'll see you the week after next. If Melrose is bound and determined to cut off his nose to spite me, so be it,' he finished on a rasping cough.
'Hey, are you okay, buddy? You sound kind of rough.'
'Just fine,' Connor said, his voice brittle with sarcasm. He'd caught some bug on the plane back from New York that morning and now there was this whole cluster screw-up with Melrose and his wife to handle.
'Why don't you take a few days off?' Danny said gently. 'You've been working your butt off for months. You're not Superman, you know.'
'You don't say,' Connor said wryly, resting his aching forehead against the cool glass of the balcony doors and staring into the garden below. 'I'll be all right once I've a solid ten hours' sleep under my belt.' Which might have worked if he hadn't been wired with jet lag.
'I'll let you get to it,' Danny said, still sounding concerned. 'But think about taking a proper break. Haven't you just moved into that swanky new pad? Take a couple of days to relax and enjoy it.'
'Sure, I'll think about it,' he lied smoothly. 'See you round, Dan.'
He clicked off the handset and glanced round at the cavernous, sparsely furnished living room in the half light.