Authors: Lucy King
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Series, #Harlequin Presents
‘That was brave.’
Warmth spread throughout her body. ‘Not really.’
‘What happened with the swimming test?’
‘I had to redo it the next day.’
‘Did you pass?’
‘Of course. Now I always pass tests,’ she said pointedly.
Alex raised an eyebrow.
‘I come from a line of overachievers,’ she clarified. ‘Didn’t your…research…throw that up?’
‘Some. It turns out I know your brother.’
‘We recently worked together on an IPO.’
That made sense. Dan worked in corporate finance
and made millions on a daily basis. Privately Phoebe thought her brother was heading straight for burnout, but that was his business. She’d tried to question him about it but he’d told her in no uncertain terms to butt out and she’d given up worrying about him.
‘Dan is a case in point,’ she said and then tilted her head. ‘Let me put it like this. In my family Christmas is treated as a business initiative.’
‘In what way?’
Right now Alex sounded intrigued. But as soon as she’d explained he’d think her entire family was insane.
‘Every September in her role as project manager my mother sends us all an email to establish what we want out of the event. What our
‘Do you have a vision?’
‘Well, I don’t generally. I’d be happy with a slice of turkey and a cracker. But not the rest of my family. No. We have to decide on our aim. Do we want to push culinary boundaries? Are we going to use the occasion to innovate and experiment, or do we simply want a day of lazy indulgence? That sort of thing.’
Alex was staring at her as if she’d just landed from another planet. ‘I know,’ she said nodding. ‘Nuts. But it gets worse.’
‘How could it possibly get worse?’
‘Once the key objective has been identified and agreed on, my mother then itemises what exactly is needed to achieve that particular vision and assigns us each roles. Her list can include anything from strategies to prevent my grandmother hitting the gin too early to calculating the number of Brussels sprouts needed. She then informs us of what she expects in terms of performance.’
‘Nice relaxing festivities, I imagine.’ Amusement glinted in the depths of his eyes.
‘Quite. On the actual day she gives us evaluation updates at regular intervals.’
‘What happens if something goes wrong?’
Phoebe gave him a look of mock horror. ‘Doesn’t happen. Contingencies are built in. Should something go awry, and it hasn’t since the memorable incident involving my father and a rolling pin ten years ago, we’re to simply remind ourselves of the vision. The experience gets absorbed into the following year’s strategy.’
‘It’s probably not a bad way of handling Christmas,’ he said dryly.
‘Yes, well, next year I’m boycotting it.’
‘The family is revolting.’
Phoebe grinned. ‘Not at all. My siblings, rather worryingly, embrace the whole thing with gusto, so technically I’m the only one who’s revolting.’
‘You’re not revolting. You’re—’ Alex broke off, the humour fading from his eyes.
Phoebe’s heart skipped a beat at the sudden shift in his demeanour. I’m what? She suddenly longed to know. What am I? Tell me. ‘I’m what?’ she said and her breath hitched in her throat as she waited for his answer.
Alex blinked and the stormy look in his eyes vanished. ‘Going to burn if you’re not careful.’
Oh, how annoying was that? He’d been staring at her face as if trying to commit every inch of it to memory, and the way his eyes had darkened as he’d fixed on her mouth had her thinking that concern for her skin had definitely not been uppermost in his mind.
‘I’m always careful,’ she said loftily.
‘So am I,’ he muttered, frowning into the distance and
standing up. Alex stretched and then to her consternation reached round the back of his neck and pulled his T-shirt off.
At the expanse of taut brown skin that hit her eyes, Phoebe nearly passed out. Muscles rippled over his abdomen, a smattering of dark hair covered his chest and narrowed down into a fine line that disappeared into the top of his shorts.
She sat on her hands to stop them from darting out and whipping open the button and sliding down his zip. A primitive longing to run her hands over those muscles, to trace the contours of every inch of him, walloped her in the stomach.
‘Did I just hear a whimper?’ Alex dropped his T-shirt on a deckchair and turned to her, a tiny smile playing at his lips.
‘A whimper?’ Phoebe snapped her gaze to the horizon and frowned as if in concentration. ‘No. I don’t think so. I certainly didn’t hear a whimper.’
‘I could have sworn I did.’
‘It must have been the wind.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Going for a swim.’
Thank God for that. Who cared if the Atlantic was supposed to be freezing? Or that swimming after eating was generally considered to be a bad thing? If it removed him from sight and out of temptation’s way he could swim to the States and she’d cheer him on with every stroke.
‘Want to join me?’
Phoebe shuddered at the thought. ‘No, thanks. I’ll stay here and look after the boat.’ And no doubt drive
herself mad speculating about what he might have been going to say.
She tried not to stare at his back as he stepped up onto the guardrail, but then figured that, as he couldn’t see her, she could sneak a peak. He twisted and stretched, the muscles of his shoulders and back tensing and flexing, and Phoebe had to clamp her mouth shut to stop another whimper escaping.
Alex dived into the clear blue water and as he disappeared beneath the surface Phoebe let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. It was only when she started putting the remains of lunch back into the cool box that she saw quite how much she was shaking.
By the time Alex stopped his relentless pace, the boat was a speck in the distance, his muscles burned and his lungs stung. The icy water, however, hadn’t had the effect he’d hoped.
His body still ached and he felt as tightly wound as one of the yacht’s engine coils. Lunch would have had to consist of food that could only really be eaten with fingers, wouldn’t it? All that licking and sucking…
And those whimsical little smiles…
If he’d had a superstitious bone in his body he’d have sworn Phoebe had been sent deliberately to torment him. He’d underestimated the madness of letting her on board his boat. The attraction he’d been doing so well at ignoring was getting harder to resist. He wanted her badly. Maybe more than he’d ever wanted anyone before. Which in the general scheme of things was nothing to worry about. Attraction was, after all, a simple question of compatible pheromones.
What worried him considerably more was that he’d
found himself liking her. Admiring her guts, her tenacity and her ability to have survived growing up with so much pressure.
Searing chemistry and liking were a dangerous combination. He’d spent pretty much the whole of the past hour fighting back the increasingly insistent urge to toss aside the table, bundle her into the cabin and get her naked and hot between his sheets.
On more than one occasion during that seemingly interminable lunch he’d been struck by the hammering urge to open up and tell her everything she wanted to know.
The thought doused the heat in his body more effectively than any quantity of ice-cold water. Spilling his guts out to Phoebe, or to anyone for that matter, was never going to happen.
Alex turned round and started ploughing through the water back to the yacht. As soon as he reached it they’d be heading back to the island and the safety of numbers.
His boat definitely wasn’t big enough for both of them. He had the uncomfortable suspicion the island wasn’t either.
HOEBE STOOD IN
front of the mirror and assessed her reflection with a critical eye. Outwardly she looked exactly as she’d intended. Immaculate, groomed and unflappable. The dress she’d chosen was a reliable favourite, her make-up was flawless and her hair was poker straight.
But her eyes held a worrying sparkle and her cheeks were tinged with pink and inside her stomach churned and her heart raced. Try as she might to persuade herself otherwise, deep down she knew perfectly well it had nothing to do with the thrill of the challenge she was about to face.
Apart from a curt ‘it’s getting late, we should be heading back’, she and Alex hadn’t exchanged a word on the journey back to the island, but the care with which they’d kept well out of touching range and had avoided eye contact had spoken volumes. The tension had reached an unbearable level by the time they’d reached the island and neither of them had been able to get off the yacht fast enough.
The minute they’d reached the house Alex had dashed off muttering something about seeing to any
last-minute arrangements. Phoebe had holed up in the safety of the guest wing where she’d spent so long analysing the attraction she seemed to have for Alex and worrying about what might happen if it spiralled out of control that it had given her quite a fright to realise that she only had half an hour to get ready.
But now she was. Armour-plated, prepared for battle and in total command of herself.
It wouldn’t get out of control. She simply couldn’t let it.
She glanced out of the window and couldn’t help smiling at the magical scene that spread out below. In the distance a brightly lit ferry was making its way to the island. Flaming torches lined the path from the jetty up the steps to the house and strings of fairy lights looped from tree to tree. Tables had been set up around the pool and groaned with food. A string quartet had parked themselves in one corner and were busy tuning up.
Whoever had organised all this had done an amazing job, thought Phoebe, idly casting her eyes over the scene. Such a shame that there’d be no press here to witness the results.
Then her gaze snagged on the man striding across the terrace and her breath hitched in her throat. Before she had time to jump back, Alex stopped and turned and looked straight up at her. Her knees wobbled and she felt a shiver race down her spine despite the warmth of the evening air drifting in through the open window.
Alex tilted his head and softly called, ‘Show time,’ before swinging round to go down and greet the guests who were spilling off the ferry and onto the jetty.
Phoebe took a series of deep fortifying breaths and ordered her stupidly hammering heart to calm down. So
he looked devastating in black tie. Big deal. A lot of men did. Not many, though, had such a debilitating effect on her nervous system.
Phoebe pulled her shoulders back. She really didn’t need a palpitating pulse and a frazzled brain right now. If she wanted to achieve anything tonight, she thought, smoothing out the non-existent wrinkles in her glittering dress as she made her way downstairs, she’d better avoid Alex at all costs.
Alex knocked back the rest of his champagne and then ran a finger around the inside of his collar.
What was Phoebe playing at?
The rational side of his brain knew exactly what she was doing. He’d been watching her for the past couple of hours, working her way into circles of guests, smiling, chatting and no doubt persuading her targets to part with vast sums of cash.
He ought to be impressed. Delighted that she was devoting so much effort to his challenge. One of his contemporaries had even made a point of coming up to him and telling him he thought Phoebe was smashing and was tempted to hire her himself. Above all, he ought to be relieved that Phoebe was proving herself to be as committed and capable as she and Jo had claimed.
So why, instead, was he irritated beyond belief? Why had he had to grit his teeth to stop himself snapping at his colleague that Phoebe wasn’t for hire? And why the hell couldn’t he take his eyes off her?
Yes, she looked beautiful. Her skin glowed in the warm light. Her eyes sparkled and her dress clung to her curves like a second skin.
But that was no reason why every move she made
should burn into his head. Nor why every smile, every laugh, every touch she bestowed on his guests should send white-hot needles shooting through him.
It was driving him demented. The food tasted like sawdust. The champagne burned his throat. He’d lost track of conversations he’d started. Had to have questions repeated. He’d even snapped the stem of a glass, he’d been holding it so tightly. Much more of this and people would begin to speculate about
Alex had had enough. He’d tried his damnedest to convince himself that he wasn’t attracted to her but he’d been fooling himself. When she’d sidled past him earlier in that slinky golden dress his brain had imploded, and ever since the principle thought hammering round his head was how quickly he could dispatch his guests and get Phoebe on her own.
It would help if she hadn’t spent the entire night avoiding him, he thought grimly. Everyone else had managed to come up and at the very least compliment him on the evening. Yet all Phoebe had managed to do was maintain her distance. Was it a coincidence that hordes of people had kept them separate throughout the night? He thought not.
‘So who is she?’
At the curiosity-laden voice of the woman threading her arm though his, Alex yanked himself out of his thoughts and glanced down. His eyes narrowed at the knowing little smile on Maggie’s face and he forced himself to relax.
‘Who is who?’ he drawled as if he didn’t have the faintest idea who Maggie was talking about.
‘The brunette you can’t take your eyes off.’
Maggie might have known him a long time but that
didn’t mean he had any intention of telling her anything. He stiffened. ‘She’s business.’
‘It’s funny,’ Maggie said with a casualness that didn’t deceive him for a second, ‘but no business I’ve ever been involved in has generated the kind of scorching looks you two have been exchanging all evening. I must be doing something wrong.’
‘Your business is thriving.’
‘Yes, but it would be so much more fun if Jim and I smouldered at each other like that.’
His gaze swung back to Phoebe and his jaw tightened as he watched one of his friends drop a kiss on her cheek. His hands balled into fists. ‘Believe me, it’s no fun.’ At least not yet. Alex’s pulse hammered. There was only one way to find out if she was as at the mercy of this attraction as he was.
‘Hmm, perhaps not,’ Maggie said, glancing down at his white knuckles and easing her arm out of his. ‘Is she coming back on the boat with us?’
To end up in the arms of one of the many men she’d been flirting with all night? Not a chance. ‘No,’ he said grimly, ‘she isn’t.’
Oh, God, Alex was coming over.
Phoebe glanced round to try and find someone to latch onto and engage in intense conversation but the crowd of people she’d been using as a shield was thinning out and for the first time in the entire evening she was alone.
She ought to be dashing inside and running up the stairs. Chucking her things into her bag and joining the others and getting off this island as soon as possible.
Because she’d done what she’d set out to achieve.
She’d more than completed Alex’s challenge, and, assuming he stuck to his word, she’d secured Jo’s and her own future, despite every second of the evening being torture. She had no further reason to stay.
So why wasn’t she making a run for it? Why wasn’t she seeking out the guest who’d offered her a lift on his private jet and looking forward to being back in London before sunrise? Why did her feet remain rooted to the ground?
Phoebe’s heart began to gallop as Alex closed the distance between them. He could have been born to wear black tie. He looked incredible. Dark and brooding and devastatingly handsome. He looked even better without the willowy blonde draped all over him, she thought tartly.
As he strode towards her, grim determination etched into his features, and a wild look in his eye, he pulled off his tie and snapped open the top button of his shirt, and Phoebe’s head spun.
An image of her undoing the rest of those buttons and tugging his clothes off him flew into her head and she nearly buckled beneath the force of the desire that whipped though her.
She swallowed hard and tried to ignore it, but it was no use. She couldn’t deny it any longer. She wanted Alex. She wanted him so badly that all he’d have to do was switch on the charm and the last vestiges of her resistance would crumble.
Her fingers itched to touch him. Her mouth tingled with the need to feel his lips moving over hers. She didn’t care any more. She might have successfully managed to avoid him, but his eyes had been on her all night, burning through the flimsy fabric of her dress and tangling up her insides. When their gazes had
locked the hungry fire in his eyes had fanned the flames of desire that swept along her veins and all she wanted now was to assuage this deep craving that consumed her.
Alex stopped in front of her and Phoebe’s breath caught.
‘You look as if you’ve been enjoying yourself.’
Enjoying herself wouldn’t be quite how she’d describe the torment of trying to concentrate while battling the threat that the constant awareness of where Alex was and who he was with posed to her composure. ‘I have,’ she answered, inwardly amazed at how steady her voice sounded when inside she was a quivering mass of need. ‘It’s been a lovely party. Beautifully done.’
He shoved his hands in his pockets and his eyes glittered down at her. ‘And my challenge?’
‘Completed and detailed here.’ She held up a little notebook. ‘Impressed?’
A muscle pounded in his jaw. ‘I’d be a lot more impressed if you’d managed it without all the flirting.’
For a moment Phoebe could do nothing more than gape at him. Then she snapped her mouth shut and told herself to hang on before leaping to the wrong conclusion. ‘If you’d wanted to draw up conditions about how I raised the money,’ she said with a calmness she really didn’t feel, ‘you should have mentioned them before.’
‘I would have had I thought you’d resort to such obvious measures.’
That was it. The disdain in his voice tipped her over and a sudden explosion of anger erupted inside her. She’d done everything he’d demanded of her and for him to then turn round and accuse her of flirting… A swirling mass of incandescence and hurt and something
strangely like disappointment boiled in her veins. How could he even
that was what she’d been doing? Hadn’t he learnt
‘I wasn’t flirting,’ she said icily. ‘It’s called taking an interest. Conversation. The exchange of information. Not that you’d know much about that.’
Alex let out a humourless laugh. ‘So the people you set your sights on just doled out the cash in a sudden fit of generosity?’
His voice dripped with sarcasm and Phoebe just wanted to get as far away from him as possible. ‘No, they didn’t. They offered things. Jewellery. Holidays. Wine.’
‘I bet they did. To you?’
‘No, of course, not to me,’ she snapped witheringly. ‘For the auction you’re going to have at your charity event. So good luck with that.’
Alex went very still. Good. She hoped he froze to the spot. She slapped her notebook against his chest barely noticing it fall to the ground. She didn’t care if she never saw him again, the arrogant, patronising jerk.
She turned on her heel but then stopped suddenly and whipped back. ‘And just for the record, those donations? Three quarters of them came from women.’
Alex watched Phoebe storm off into the house and called himself every name under the sun. He wanted to hit something. Hard. Preferably himself.
He bent down to pick up the notebook and flicked through it as he straightened. Page after page of handwriting detailed each donation, the estimated value and the contact details of the donor.
He totted up the total. Phoebe hadn’t just completed
his challenge. She’d raised double the original target. Dammit, he
impressed. So what on earth had prompted him to attack her like that?
Alex thrust the notebook into his pocket and strode after her. He took the stairs two at a time and found her in the guest wing, whirling round the room like a dervish, flinging things into her bag and muttering furiously under her breath.
He stopped in the doorway. ‘Phoebe.’
Phoebe spun round. Her cheeks were red and her chest was heaving, but she didn’t stop moving. ‘Go away.’
Alex had no intention of going anywhere. The need to finish what had started beneath the pergola clawed at his stomach. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have implied that you’d sell yourself to bring in business. It was a careless thing to say and totally unfounded.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘You shouldn’t. So why did you?’
He ran his hands through his hair. ‘I was angry.’
‘That dress would tempt a saint.’
That stopped her in her tracks. She stuck her hands on her hips and glared at him. ‘So now it’s
He frowned. ‘Were you aware of the looks you were attracting?’
‘The only looks I noticed were the filthy ones you kept flinging in my direction.’
‘You smiled at and talked to everyone yet you avoided me. All night,’ he ground out.
Phoebe’s lip curled. ‘You sound jealous.’
Alex blinked and felt faintly stunned. He’d never experienced jealousy, but it certainly explained a lot. ‘You’re right. I was.’
Her eyes flashed. ‘Again, not my fault.’
‘Why were you avoiding me?’
‘I wasn’t,’ she snapped, but her gaze slid away and he knew she’d been doing exactly that. ‘I had little time and a long list of people to talk to. I couldn’t afford to waste a second.’
‘Is that the only reason?’
‘What other reason would there be?’
‘Perhaps I distract you.’