All Lara Connor knows about the hot-as-sin guy who lives above her is that his nocturnal activities are keeping her awake. A lot. Fed upand not at all jealous!she decides to confront the man head-on. Big mistake! Because, face-to-face, Lara sees just why so many women fall into Alex's bed!
Nights have been sheer torture for ex-soldier Alex ever since he returned from active duty, but he's not about to share that with Lara. But when she becomes his unexpected flatmate, temptation personified is sleeping in the room next door, and keeping his distance is going to be difficult. Impossible. In fact it's the perfect opportunity to show her just why sleep is so overrated
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Lara Connor was aiming to corner the rich Notting Hill market in boutique lingerie and she wasn't about to achieve that heady dream with French knickers that looked as if a club-fingered chimp had sewn them together.
She stared in disbelief at the mass of pale pink silk and delicate lace now rucked up in a tangle of mad stitches beneath the foot of her sewing machine and gritted her teeth hard enough to make her jaw ache. Above her head the banging started again with a new urgency that really brought out the hostility in her.
She liked to think she was a glass-halffull kind of person, laid-back, live and let live, default mood: happy. But the noise pollution emanating from the flat above all night, every night, had meant her sleep had been broken for weeks now. Tiredness had pushed her normally sunny attitude to the brink of her patience and, frankly, if it didn't stop now, murder might be on the cards.
She lifted the foot of the machine, disentangled the ball of expensive fabric from the needle and examined it. Beyond saving. She lobbed it across the room into the 'remnants' bin. The knickers weren't even salvageable enough to go into the 'seconds' bin. And having sunk every penny into this venture, she couldn't afford to keep slipping up like this. The 'remnants' bin was looking far too full for her liking, and it was all the fault of the Lothario upstairs, who apparently couldn't let a day pass by without getting laid.
The clanking and banging in the pipes had begun a few weeks ago, not long after Lara had moved in. The sudden increase in noise coincided with the return of the soldier brother of Poppy, who owned the flat upstairs. Lara had got to know Poppy quite well over the last four or five weeks, and her flatmate, Izzy. A brief hello on the stairs had quickly progressed to coffee and chat in the downstairs café. Both girls were excited to hear about Lara's lingerie designs. Izzy had even bought a couple of samples. On her own in a new place, Lara was especially pleased to have made friends. If only Poppy's brother could have a smidge of her consideration.
Sitting in Ignite, the ground-floor café, while Lara updated her blog courtesy of the free Wi-Fi, she'd picked up plenty of gossip from the other old-fire-station residents about Alex. He was rumoured to be some military hero, honourably discharged from the army after frontline action abroad. The building was also awash with gossip about his endless stream of women; the word was that he bedded a different one every night! And two or three times she'd actually seen said women, sporting that giveaway combination of evening clothes, bed hair and smug smile, making the walk of shame when she'd nipped down to the café for a takeaway coffee first thing in the morning. Lara had watched pityingly; she couldn't think of anything more pointless. With all this evidence taken as a whole, there was no real question as to the source of the noise pollution that was tiring her out, disrupting her work and thus costing her money, of which she had absolutely no more.
The first couple of times it might even have been funny. His bed must be shoved right up against the radiator, because the water pipes for the top flat were clearly shared by her own little studio flat below. At first she'd rolled her eyes in exasperation andpossiblya hint of wistful envy. Not that it had anything to do with the military hero himself, of course; in her opinion he sounded far too attractive for his own good. But still, it had been a long time since she'd last seen any action in that department. That was what big aspirations did to your life. There had to be sacrifices; something had to give. Lara Connor had plans and ambitions, and she intended to keep her eye on the prize.
The next step on that journey to success was the small shop she'd managed to secure in Notting Hill for the next two months. Her own pop-up shop to showcase her own line of vintage-inspired lingerie. The rent on this little flat was extortionate and had eaten away at her savings, but it was worth it so she could live near the premises and she'd been working all the hours she could muster. Sewing was only a part of itthere was marketing to think of, the shop to fit and decorate. Night and day her mind was filled with nothing else. She was already exhausted, just with the workload she had to shoulder, but she cared about none of it because this was the next step in her game plan, from which she would not be distracted.
Certainly not by some inconsiderate love god living upstairs. The endless noise was beginning to jeopardise her carefully laid plans, and she quite simply was not going to stand for it any longer. Especially since it now seemed that all night was no longer adequate for his needs. This morning she'd heard the familiar slam of the door as his most recent conquest left the building. But this time it hadn't been followed by the welcome peace that she needed to produce the intricate lingerie she designed herself to the exacting standards she demanded. She worked with delicate, fine fabrics. Silks, lace, ribbons, velvet. The kind of garments she made took skill and close attention to detail. Absolute concentration was required.
Instead, what she'd had was half an hour of mad hammering. For the first few minutes she'd tried to ignore it, waiting to see if one of the other residents would intervene. Surely she couldn't be the only one driven mad by this? But as the minutes ticked by and the noise didn't abate she came to realise that clearly no one else was around to intervene. They'd all gone out to work, of course, while work for Lara took place right here. She needed to concentrate on her sewing. Everything was riding on this stock being perfect. Seconds were not an option.
As she pushed her chair back grimly and grabbed her door key from the table the bashing overhead began again in earnest, bringing a fresh wave of anger to bubble up inside her.
All night, every night was one thing. Was she now expected to put up with this racket all day too?
Enough was enough.
Shoulders squared, teeth gritted, she took the stairs up to the top floor grimly, ready to give Poppy's inconsiderate brother a piece of her sleep-deprived mind, and the planned outburst screeched to a halt on the tip of her tongue as she rounded the corner at the top of the stairs. The hinge on her jaw seemed to be suddenly loose.
Poppy's inconsiderate brother?
Correction: Poppy's all but naked, roped with muscle, fit and breathtakingly gorgeous soldier hero brother. His modesty was saved only by a very small white towel, which was held up on his muscular hips by a single fold. Hard muscle twined the tanned biceps and broad shoulders. His stomach was drum-tight and his short dark hair was damply tousled. Smoothly tanned skin gave away the fact he'd spent months abroad in action before coming here. By sheer will she fixed her eyes above his neck when all they wanted to do was dip lower and check out those perfect abs.
And OK, for a moment she might have been stunned into silence by the revelation that, actually, the rumours were true, Poppy's brother really was drop-dead gorgeous, and by the fact that his modesty was hidden by the tiniest of white towels, but then he'd gone on to ruin the effect by raising his clenched fist and hammering on the closed door of the flat, reproducing the sound that had driven her to the edge of her sanity for the past half an hour. Up close it was monstrously loud and her already aching head throbbed in protest.
'I think,' she snapped, in the coldest voice she could muster, 'we can safely assume that everyone who lives on the other side of that door is either out or deaf.'
Alex Spencer stopped, knuckles poised mid-hammer, and turned sideways to look at her. Her thick blond hair was piled up messily on her head with a pencil stuck through the middle of it, she had a full rosebud mouth, and wide china-blue eyes that would have been captivating if they hadn't got an expression in them that implied she'd quite like to see him decomposing in a ditch. She wore a pale pink cardigan with the top two buttons undone, revealing a silky smooth expanse of flawless porcelain decolletage, cropped jeans and bare feet. And even though he was so tired he could hardly see straight, and not only because he'd just spent a very active night in bed that involved anything but sleep, his pulse managed a jolt of interest.
'And you are ?' he said, raising sarcastic eyebrows as if she were the one who looked out of place and it were perfectly normal to be walking the corridors wearing a bath towel.
'The poor sap who lives downstairs,' she snapped. 'Directly downstairs, to be specific. Right below you.'
He stared at her, his tired brain struggling to process what she was saying. It felt as if he were thinking through a very large wad of cotton wool. Technically, thanks to the way his sickening insomnia had progressed, night time for him had pretty much now turned into day and vice versa. Thus it was currently an hour or so past his bedtime and his patience was balanced on a knife edge.
'What are you talking about?'
The question opened the floodgates and he took a defensive step backwards.
'Your night-time action is ruining my life,' she wailed. 'All night, every night, crashing and clanking pipes while you get your rocks off with whatever girl you happen to have brought back. Your bed must be right up against the radiator or something. The noise travels down the pipes and echoes round my bedroom as if I'm in the bloody room with you. It's utter selfishness! I can hear every move you make and I can't take it anymore!' She raised her hands up and pressed them to the sides of her head as if she thought it might explode. 'I can't have this kind of distraction. I've only got a week or so left before the shop launches and I'm going to go crazy if I don't get some uninterrupted sleep!
The blue eyes took on a hint of madness, and an unexpected twinge of sympathy twisted his stomach because restful sleep was currently an elusive thing for him too. It had been since he'd returned from his recent overseas tour via the hospital. He'd worked his way through convalescence at breakneck speed after the chest injuries he'd sustained in a roadside bomb, only to learn that he wouldn't be going back. Physical injury was one thing, an early end to his career was quite another. Discharge from the army had not been what he wanted, no matter that it was honourable. He had a lot on his mind, he kept telling himselfit was no wonder that he didn't sleep like a baby at night.
'The shop?' he said.
'I'm in the middle of launching a popup shop in Portobello Road. It's my first try at moving into proper retail instead of market stalls. I need it to be a success and nothing's going to stop me, including your libido!'
Her angry explanation of her business commitments brought a lurching reminder that currently his own life was cruising along rudderless. It wasn't as if he had a direction right now, or plans to consider. Lack of sleep had no consequence in his life, aside from the fact that his routine was getting a bit out of kilter, and who really cared about that? Since his social circle currently consisted of a group of girly flatmates, an old friend who was hardly ever there, and his kid sister, concern about his sleep pattern wasn't exactly a buzzing topic of conversation. And since his sleep problems were rooted in an unrelenting spate of cold-sweat nightmares that made staying awake through the dark hours extremely attractive, he'd quite like to keep it that way.
After operations to remove shrapnel and four months of medical care, his physical recovery was as complete as it was going to get. He'd worked hard to regain his fitness, thinking that would be an end to it, believing he'd got off lightly. He hadn't counted on the nightmares continuing. He hadn't told anyone about them, not even Poppy, vaguely thinking that verbalising their existence might somehow give them even more of a grip on him. Easier to just evade sleep and hope they would subside. To help things along, he filled his waking hours with distracting activity, taking full advantage of the sudden lack of discipline and routine in his life after years of moulding to the requirements first of boarding school and then the armed forces.
The sense of purpose and the camaraderie that he'd come to take for granted in the army left a gaping hole in his life now it was unexpectedly gone. Hence the appeal of filling his time with far less challenging distractions. For the first time in his life he'd thrown himself into having fun, losing all sense of his current pointless existence by bedding as many women as possible. It wasn't difficult. Women seemed to fall at his feet with minimal effort on his part, just the way they always had done.
Except, possibly, for this one.
'If this carries on I'll report you to the local council for noise pollution,' she was snarling. 'Can't you phone Poppy?'
He cast exasperated hands down at himself in the small towel.
'With what, exactly? Do I look like I've got a phone stashed on my person? If my sister would just haul herself out of her pit and answer the bloody door, I wouldn't need to be making any noise,' he yelled at the closed door, pressing his point by adding in another quick bash on it, which made the crazy neighbour from downstairs stiffen like a meerkat.
'Will you stop with the knocking?' she hollered. 'Is Poppy deaf?'
'Not as far as I'm aware.'
'Then she's not bloody in there, is she? You've been hammering on that door for half an hour and it's loud enough to wake the dead.' She threw her hands up in a gesture of exasperation. 'For Pete's sake, she must be at work. I saw her the other day and she mentioned she was on call this week.'