Authors: Lucy King
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Series, #Harlequin Presents
All wanting to know where Phoebe was and why she wasn’t answering her phone.
As realisation dawned her heart began to thud and panic clawed at her stomach. Her palms went damp and a ball of dread lodged in her throat. A bolt of sheer terror gripped her insides and squeezed. Her vision went fuzzy as a wave of nausea reared up from her stomach to her throat. Blindly Phoebe stumbled to the window, threw it open and sucked in great gulps of air.
Everything she’d ever worked for, everything Jo had
ever worked for, hung in the balance. She knew the field she worked in well. If she was there, on the scene, she’d be able to reassure people that she was in full control and handling the crisis. If she was there she’d be able to divert disaster.
Instead where was she? Miles away. And what had she been doing while Jo was falling to pieces and her whole life was threatening to implode? Laughing and talking and exploring the new-found delights of sexual ecstasy with Alex.
Phoebe felt like banging her head against the desk as a tidal wave of guilt flooded through her. She’d allowed herself to get distracted and taken her eye off the ball. How could she have been so stupid?
And the principle thought running round and round her head on the tense and fraught journey back to London was that it had happened again.
Phoebe read the story for the third time, then closed the newspaper and tried to rally her spirits, but it was as bad as she’d imagined.
According to the report, Jo had once had a boyfriend who’d bullied her, nagged her about her weight and introduced her to diet pills, which had led to addiction, extreme anorexia and the subsequent hospitalisation.
She could scarcely believe that the girl described in the article and the girl sitting next to her on the sofa were one and the same.
‘Is all of this true?’ Phoebe said, more to break the taut silence than out of any necessity to know the answer. Whether it was true or not, the damage had already been done, as the messages on her mobile and in her inbox testified.
‘Pretty much.’ Jo sniffed. Her eyes were red and puffy, but she was holding up remarkably well given the circumstances.
‘Is there any more?’
Thank goodness for that. ‘Why didn’t I know about this?’
‘No one does,’ said Alex flatly.
Phoebe glanced over at him and steeled herself against the effect Alex had on her brain. She really needed a clear head at the moment. ‘Well, someone clearly does… A source close to Ms Douglas…’ She turned to Jo. ‘Can you think of anyone that might be? Someone who worked at the hospital perhaps?’
Jo sighed. ‘I suspect it might have been Mark.’
A stunned hush fell over the room.
‘Mark?’ Alex’s voice sliced through the silence like a whip.
Jo slumped back against her worktable. ‘I might have mentioned that I once had problems with my weight and I haven’t been able to get hold of him since the party.’
Phoebe’s brain raced. ‘If he was broke, then he may well have sold what he knew to the papers. Once a journalist gets the sniff of a story it usually doesn’t take much digging to uncover the rest.’
The memory of Mark’s drunken threats flashed into her head and she cast a quick glance at Alex. The haggard look on his face told her that he’d come to a similar conclusion.
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you called.’
Jo gave her a wan smile. ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re here now. But where were you? I’ve never not been able to get hold of you before.’
Jo sounded more curious than accusatory, but that didn’t stop guilt washing over her. ‘I was away,’ said Phoebe. ‘On business. Last minute. It won’t happen again.’
She shot a quick look at Alex, whose face had turned even stonier. ‘I’ll organise a press conference as soon as possible and we’ll sort this out. Jo,’ she said with more confidence than she felt, ‘you’ve come a long way since then. It’ll be OK.’
Alex had barely been able to resist the urge to hurl the paper against the wall when he’d read the article. The only part they’d left out was that Jo’s ex-boyfriend had been his business partner. A man he thought he’d known inside out. His best friend. Who’d nearly destroyed Jo and had nearly ruined him.
He kept his gaze fixed on his sister and battled the shock that she’d so casually let slip to Mark something he’d taken such pains to keep buried. Hadn’t she learned from him? Hadn’t he warned her about the dangers of trusting people? About what happened if you let someone get near you?
Alex’s hands clenched into fists and he had to stamp down on the urge to hunt Mark down and beat him to a pulp. The night of the pre-launch party slammed into his head. The threats and the warnings as he’d dragged Mark out of the pond that he’d dismissed as drunken ramblings. The debts. All tiny little clues that Mark might be a danger. And he’d ignored them.
The moment he’d seen the headlines, guilt had started attacking him on all sides. Firstly for failing to protect Jo. Again. A second blast had struck him when he’d realised that Jo had needed him and he hadn’t been there. As if that hadn’t been enough for one man in one
lifetime, guilt also prickled that he’d lured Phoebe away for the weekend when she ought to have been here for his sister.
He glanced over at her and there it was again, another arrow of guilt piercing his chest. Because despite the torment his sister was suffering, the main thought rattling round his brain was how soon he could get Phoebe back into his bed.
A wave of weariness swept through him. He’d been carrying around the burden of guilt for five years now. It had clung to his shoulders like a heavy mantle, dragging him down, and he was so tired of it.
His gaze flickered over to his sister. She was listening to Phoebe outlining the strategy for sorting out the mess, and it struck him that she seemed a lot calmer and more confident than he’d have imagined in the circumstances. In fact she appeared to be more concerned with the effect that Mark’s revelations might have on her career rather than on her personally.
Phoebe was right, he realised with something of a shock. Jo had come a long way since then. She didn’t need him to pick up the pieces any longer. So why was he still beating himself up over something that Jo had clearly decided to get over?
Would it really be so bad if he dispensed with the guilt? Jo had told him time and time again that she didn’t hold him in any way responsible for what had happened to her, but up until now he had resolutely resisted the temptation to forgive himself. And what good was that doing anyone?
Jo might have come a long way, but he hadn’t, he acknowledged reluctantly. If his sister was able to get over what had happened and get on with things, why shouldn’t he?
O AND THE
last of the journalists left the room where the press conference had been held and Phoebe slumped back into her chair.
Thank God. It was over and she never wanted to go through anything like it again. She could scarcely believe how close she’d come to losing everything. She felt dizzy just thinking about it.
But she’d pulled it off. She’d spent the last twenty-four hours working like a demon with her phone permanently glued to her ear while she slowly repaired their reputations. And it had paid off. Jo had been brilliant and the fashion house deal was back on.
Phoebe herself was back in control and she didn’t intend to lose it again. Ever. If that meant no more hot sex with Alex, then so be it.
She ignored the little voice in her head telling her she was a fool to let something so fantastic go. But it was only sex, and she couldn’t afford to slip up again. The way she’d been so out of control on Saturday night, so at the mercy of her body’s needs, terrified her and she wanted no more of it.
She might not be able to avoid Alex altogether, she
thought, folding her arms on the table and resting her forehead on them, but she could certainly make sure she never slept with him again.
Alex strode back into the hotel conference room and cleared his throat. Phoebe jumped and jerked back. ‘You look like you could do with this,’ he said, placing a cup of coffee in front of her.
That was an understatement. Phoebe looked awful. Dark circles ringed her eyes and her face was pale.
‘Oh. Er, thanks. I didn’t see you earlier.’
He sat on the edge of the table and watched her carefully. ‘I was lurking at the back. Congratulations.’
‘Thank you.’ She gave him a wan smile. ‘And thank you for keeping out of things.’
Alex lifted a shoulder. ‘It was part of the deal. Have you missed me?’
Phoebe’s gaze snapped to his face. ‘No,’ she said quickly, and then began to shuffle the papers on the table.
Alex grinned. ‘What are you doing for the rest of the afternoon?’
‘Work, I imagine.’
‘You ought to get some rest.’ Preferably in his bed.
‘I ought to get going.’
‘Do you ever stop?’
‘At the moment I can’t afford to stop,’ she said with a brief humourless smile that made him frown. ‘You’ve been involved with new businesses. You must know that they require attention every hour of the day and night.’
True. And investing in new businesses meant a similar kind of commitment. But Alex recognised the signs of exhaustion and the way Phoebe was going she’d collapse before long.
‘Would you like a lift?’
A startled look of horror crossed her face. Surely his suggestion wasn’t that bad? But if that was her reaction to a lift, maybe he’d wait until she was in a more relaxed frame of mind before putting forward his proposal that they continue to see each other. ‘No. It’s fine. I can get a taxi.’
‘You’ll never find one. It’s pouring outside.’
‘Or a bus or a train or something.’
Her cool tone and the way she deliberately avoided eye contact was beginning to irritate him. As was the incessant shuffling of papers. What was the matter with her? Alex crossed his arms over his chest. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Wrong?’ Her gaze flicked to his for a second and then darted away. ‘The press conference went well and Jo’s career is back on track. What could possibly be wrong?’
The ball of baffled frustration that had been ricocheting around his chest stopped and burst. To hell with waiting. ‘How about the fact that only a couple of days ago you were writhing in my arms, gasping with pleasure and begging me for more, yet now you can’t wait to see the back of me?’
Colour stained her cheeks and her gaze slid to the table. ‘That was then.’
‘What happened on the island was a one off.’ She sighed and when she did finally deign to look at him her eyes were unfathomable and Alex found he didn’t like it one little bit. ‘A momentary lapse of reason. It was a mistake.’ She plucked her jacket off the back of her chair.
‘So I guess an affair’s out of the question,’ he drawled.
Phoebe went very still. ‘An affair?’
‘You and me and the hot sex you were so keen on on Saturday night.’
She threaded her arms through her jacket and did the buttons up. ‘You’re right. Totally out of the question. I’m not interested in an affair.’
Disappointment far greater than it should have been thwacked him in the stomach. Then just before she twisted away he saw that her hands were trembling and it made him wonder. ‘So you don’t want me?’
‘No, I don’t. Not any more.’
He slid off the table and moved closer. ‘And you don’t want me to pull you into my arms right now and kiss you until you’re shaking with desire? You don’t want me to peel that little suit off you and spread you over the table and trail my mouth over every inch of your body?’
‘No.’ Her voice cracked.
‘In that case you definitely won’t want me doing this.’
Alex spun her round and brought his mouth down on hers. His arms snapped round her and he pulled her tight against him. He plunged his tongue into her mouth and desire flared inside him. His heart hammered. But Phoebe remained rigid in his punishing embrace.
He broke off, breathing raggedly, and stared down at her. ‘Kiss me back,’ he muttered hoarsely.
‘No,’ she said, glaring at him, fury written all over her face.
God, why was she denying this? Did she really not want him? The thought made him dizzy for a second. It was an uncomfortable sensation. But maybe she didn’t. Maybe he’d read it all wrong and Saturday night had just been about high-running tempers. If that was the case then he had no business hauling her about, however much he might want to.
He was just about to let her go when he saw something flicker in the depths of her eyes. His heart skidded to a halt. She did want him. Triumph and relief pummelled through him.
He’d make her respond, make her see that an affair was an excellent idea, if it was the last thing he did. He loosened his grip on her and slid one hand slowly up her back to her neck and buried his fingers in her hair.
Alex felt her tense as if in preparation for another onslaught, but when he lowered his head this time he brushed his lips against hers and then dropped feather light kisses along her jaw.
Phoebe’s head dropped back and he smiled against her skin. He explored the creamy smoothness of her neck and then found her mouth again and this time when he kissed her he found no resistance. Just warm, wet sweetness.
‘If you don’t want me,’ he murmured, ‘then this is the moment when you would slap me.’
Phoebe jerked back and without warning her hand flew up. She was quick but Alex’s instincts were quicker. With a sharp curse he blocked her hand and wrapped his fingers around her wrist.
‘What was that for?’ he said, his eyes blazing.
‘You suggested it.’
Alex stared at her, stunned. He’d felt less at sea in the middle of the ocean in the throes of a force-twelve hurricane. ‘You want me.’
‘No, I don’t.’
He’d had enough. ‘I thought
was good at denial but you’re a master. You’d drive a man to drink.’
‘All right,’ yelled Phoebe. ‘I do want you. You’re right. Saturday night was amazing. I do want a repeat. But it’s not going to happen.’
Alex shoved his hands through his hair. ‘Why the hell not?’
She gaped. ‘How can you even ask that? While I was in your bed, papers were going to print with that story. I should have been here.’
Alex froze. Was that what this was all about? Guilt? It was lucky he was an expert on the subject. ‘That wasn’t your fault. It was mine. I shouldn’t have dragged you off to the island in the first place.’
‘I could have got on that boat. I
have got on that boat.’
Alex frowned. ‘It wouldn’t have made any difference. We were due to leave at lunchtime.’
Phoebe threw her hands up in a gesture of anguish. ‘I’d planned to hitch a lift with one of your colleagues who was leaving that night. If I’d done that, if I’d had the strength to stick to the plan I would have been here for Jo.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘But no. What did I do? Leap into bed with you.’
He winced at the disgust in her voice even though he knew it was directed more at herself than at him. ‘Guilt doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s a complete waste of time.’
‘Hah. What would you know about guilt? I bet you’ve never suffered a moment’s guilt in your entire life.’
Alex felt as if she’d thumped him in the gut. ‘Is that what you think? Then let me set you straight. I’ve spent the last five years riddled with guilt. Over what happened to Jo. Over whether I could have done something to prevent it. And you know what? Maybe I could have done more. Who knows? But one thing I’ve come to realise recently is that beating yourself up about something that can’t be undone is utterly pointless.’
‘It isn’t pointless,’ she said sharply. ‘It can stop you making the same mistake again.’
‘Can it? Does it stop
making the same mistakes again?’
Phoebe glared at him. ‘It’ll stop me jumping into bed with you again.’
Alex reeled. ‘I didn’t realise you found it so unpleasant the first time.’
Her shoulders dropped and she ran a hand through her hair. ‘I didn’t. You know I didn’t. But you make me lose control. You distort my focus. My judgement does derail when I get distracted and I can’t risk that.’ Her voice cracked. ‘Honestly, sometimes I feel like my finger is hovering over my self-destruct button and it’s only sheer will power that stops me from jabbing at it and watching my life unravel with some sort of morbidly fascinating relief. I nearly just lost everything. My business, my career, everything I’ve ever worked for.’ She pulled her shoulders back and shot him a look of calm finality. ‘I won’t compromise that for a brief fling with you. It’s just not worth it.’
Something deep inside Alex suddenly exploded. ‘That’s utter rubbish.’
Phoebe gasped but he carried on regardless.
‘You’re good at your job. You know you are. You spent long enough telling me about it. You might not have been available the instant the story hit the papers, but you salvaged the situation regardless.’
‘By the skin of my teeth.’
‘But you did it. And if you’re so terrified of your precious life unravelling, why set up your own business when nine out of ten start-ups fail within the first year? Now I have no idea where this sudden misguided lack
of confidence comes from, or even if it
a sudden misguided lack of confidence, but whatever it is, for some reason I can’t work out, you’re using it to hide behind.’
‘I’m not hiding behind anything. Is it really so difficult to believe that I just don’t want to have an affair with you?’
‘Frankly, yes. Because your body still craves mine as much as mine craves yours.’
Phoebe shrugged as if electrifying sexual chemistry was nothing more than a minor inconvenience in her life. ‘That’s just biology.’
Alex felt the energy drain out of him. Why was he fighting so hard for this? It wasn’t as if Phoebe were the only woman on the planet. ‘Fine.’ He stepped back and shot her a humourless smile. ‘You know something? I really don’t need the hassle. I just thought a fling might be fun.’
And with that he turned on his heel and stormed out.