The Playboy's Proposal AMANDA BROWNING Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Joel Kendrick is the sexiest man Kathryn has ever met - even though she knows he isn't interested in a permanent relationship.But never one to refuse a challenge, when Joel flirts with her she flirts back! Only, flirting turns into a genuine desire on Joel's part - and true love on Kathryn's. Embarking on a passionate affair, Kathryn conceals her feelings, knowing Joel doesn't believe in love. Then suddenly, to her amazement, her bachelor playboy proposes…. “You’re not afraid of me?” “Should I be? Do you intend to devour me?” Kathryn challenged scoffingly, knowing she wasn’t in the least bit afraid of him. “The idea becomes more enticing by the minute. Doesn’t it?” Joel charged softly. Warning bells went off in her head. “I think this is where I should protest that we have only just met.” “Maybe we have, but it only took a second for both of us to know we want each other.” “Do we know it?” she charged mockingly, and he nodded. “Oh yes, and I give you fair warning, when I want something I usually get it.” “Your arrogance is incredible!” “My lovemaking is even better,” he retorted. AMANDA BROWNING still lives in the house where she was born. The third of four children—her sister being her twin—she enjoyed the rough and tumble of life with two brothers as much as she did reading books. Writing came naturally as an outlet for a fertile imagination. The love of books led her to a career in libraries, and being single allowed her to take the leap into writing for a living. Success is still something of a wonder, but allows her to indulge in hobbies as varied as embroidery and bird-watching. “Amanda Browning pens a riveting tale chock full of dynamic characters, sharp dialogue and an explosive conflict.” —Romantic Times The Playboy’s Proposal Amanda Browning Contents CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ONE KATHRYN TEMPLETON was wrapped in a pleasant haze, floating somewhere between sleeping and waking. The virtually silent engine and the gentle music issuing from the car’s speakers had had her sinking more comfortably into her seat and closing her eyes some time ago. It was the sudden cessation of noise as the music was turned off which brought her eyes open with a start, and she turned puzzled green orbs towards the driver, her Titian hair swinging about her face as she did so. ‘What’s up?’ Glancing ahead, she expected to see trouble in the form of an accident, but the road, winding through a Lakeland landscape clad in a late-winter fall of snow, was empty. ‘We’re almost there,’ declared Drew Templeton, her cousin and the reason she was sitting here heading into the Cumbrian wilds, as if that explained everything. As far as Kathryn was concerned, it left a lot to be desired. Sitting up, she glanced at him curiously. ‘So what’s turned you so serious all of a sudden?’ Drew’s fingers tapped out a nervy tattoo on the steering wheel. ‘Nothing, really,’ he denied, then added, ‘I thought I’d better warn you about Joel, that’s all.’ Finely arched brows rose questioningly in a heart-shaped face. Drew had been fairly reticent about his employer. All she knew was that he had trouble with his computer, and, because she cared for her cousin, she had agreed to help. She ran a small but flourishing business sorting out problems with computer programs. ‘What about him?’ It seemed to her a fine time to start issuing warnings, when they were almost at journey’s end, but she guessed Drew hadn’t wanted to risk her running out on him. The rat. Not that she would have. ‘OK, tell me the worst. Is he some sort of monster?’ she teased lightly, and he gave her a sombre look. ‘Not exactly. I think the best way to describe Joel Kendrick is as a wolf in wolf’s clothing,’ he declared seriously. The description had her ears pricking up. Really? She had never met an honest-to-goodness real life wolf before. What would he be like? Handsome, of course, with sex appeal dripping from every pore, or how else would he attract women? How did he go about seducing them? What, she wondered, with a quickening of her heart, would it be like flirting with him? The thought sent a tiny tremor of anticipation along her spine. There was nothing she enjoyed more than a light-hearted flirtation with a handsome, like-minded man. The weekend, which had offered only some interesting work, now took on a different complexion entirely. Smiling to herself, Kathryn folded her arms and gave Drew her full attention. ‘How interesting. Do tell me more!’ she invited with barely suppressed enthusiasm. Her cousin groaned, not at all surprised by her response. Kathryn was cheerful and vivacious, and generally saw life as an adventure. Instead of viewing Joel Kendrick as someone to be avoided, she was more likely to see only the challenge of flirting with him. Unfortunately, his employer wasn’t like most men she met. It worried him that there was a real danger here, and he didn’t want to see her hurt. ‘Listen, Kathy, I’m being serious. Joel is my employer, and I like him, but I don’t have to approve of his attitude towards the opposite sex. He has a predatory eye for beautiful women. When he sees one he wants, he goes after her with single-minded intent. Oh, he treats his women well, but he’s only interested in an affair. Marriage is quite out of the question. Which, incidentally, is why you’re here.’ Far from being put off, Kathryn felt her curiosity sharpen. ‘You mean, one of his women caused this computer malfunction?’ ‘Apparently she took exception to his ending their affair, and we think she slipped back into the house whilst he was out and deleted everything she could lay her hands on. Then the system crashed, and…. Well, this isn’t my field. God knows what else she did, but according to Joel it’s a mess.’ ‘I see,’ Kathryn mused, silently praising the woman’s ingenuity. It certainly beat cutting his suits to shreds. The woman had style. Drew sighed and flicked on the indicator before turning off the main road. ‘Joel called me and asked if I knew anyone who could help. He doesn’t want just anyone raking around in his business. I knew I could trust you, but it wasn’t until we were on our way that I realised taking you to Joel was like throwing you to the wolf.’ ‘Because you think he might be interested in adding me to his list of conquests?’ Kathryn enquired teasingly, and Drew turned troubled eyes on her. ‘You certainly fit his criteria.’ She grinned. This was sounding very promising, ‘You mean I’m breathing?’ she taunted wryly. ‘I mean, you’re beautiful,’ Drew corrected heavily, and she quickly reached out and squeezed his arm. ‘Thank you for the compliment,’ she said warmly, and, unable to resist her patent affection, he grinned back at her. ‘You’re entirely welcome.’ Sitting back in her seat, Kathryn studied the starkly beautiful landscape. They were on a lakeside road, and the view was breathtaking. She liked winter. Everything seemed so sharp and clean. Eventually, though, her thoughts turned back to Joel Kendrick. It was as well he wasn’t looking for a wife, because he didn’t sound her type at all. She was looking for that one man she would want to spend the rest of her life with. She knew that one day she would meet a man and fall in love with him in an instant, because love was like that. Whilst she waited, though, she wasn’t averse to having some fun. So what if Drew’s boss wasn’t husband material? As a diversion he fitted the bill nicely. She was well and truly intrigued by the possibility of indulging in some fascinating exchanges with a man who must have flirtation down to a fine art. Really, Drew needn’t worry about her being seduced by this latter-day Casanova. She had her head screwed on, and wasn’t about to become Joel Kendrick’s next conquest. ‘So, Joel Kendrick is used to getting any woman he wants, is he?’ she mused thoughtfully. ‘Being handsome and rich has something to do with it. Women seem to fall for him in droves,’ Drew added dryly. ‘Ah, the pull of sex appeal.’ She knew its power. Had fallen under its spell once or twice in her search for love and Mr Right. She knew she was as susceptible as the next woman when it came to a hunky male, but that didn’t mean she gave in to it. She had had a grand total of two relationships in her twenty-six years. It was no hardship to keep her relationships platonic. Sex for sex’s sake had never had an appeal. ‘What does he do? I mean, he doesn’t simply chase women all day, does he?’ ‘He’s a business man, with engineering companies worldwide. He can be ruthless at times, but he’s well respected in the City. He took over the original company when his father retired, and has taken it from strength to strength. He’s a force to be reckoned with, but unfortunately it means he’s used to getting his own way.’ So, he was a strong-willed man. Well, she was used to strong-willed men. Her father and brothers were such men, with a tendency to issue commands to the youngest child and only daughter because they loved her and wanted to protect her. She understood that, but never let them ride roughshod over her. Consequently, their battles had become legendary. She was, after all, her father’s daughter, and equally strong-willed. ‘Do you honestly think I’m likely to be interested in him?’ ‘I hope not,’ Drew responded fervently. There was no knowing quite which way Kathryn would go, but a prudent man expected the worst. He pulled a face. ‘Though it’s been my experience that women can’t seem to help themselves where he’s concerned.’ She laughed wryly, easily following his line of thought. The trouble with Drew was that he knew her too well. ‘Thanks for the vote of confidence. As it happens, I’m no push-over. Have you given thought to the possibility that I might not like him?’ The law of probability said that there must be some women who were immune to his practised charm. ‘No. You’d do something silly just for fun even if you didn’t like him. Just don’t get involved with him,’ Drew commanded. ‘Be kind to yourself, Kathy. He’s not the sort of man you want to play around with.’ There was no doubting his concern, and she loved him for it, but she felt he was rather jumping the gun. OK, she was thinking of sharpening her claws a little, but she could always change her mind. ‘I tell you what, I’ll take it under advisement. For now, I think I’ll just reserve judgement. After all, I haven’t even met the man!’ A situation which was about to be remedied some fifteen minutes later, when Drew brought the car to a halt before a large stone-built house, with gables and an extra wing tacked on to one end of it. ‘So, this is the wolf’s lair?’ Kathryn declared, tongue very firmly in cheek, as she climbed out of the car. It was beautiful. Drew retrieved their luggage from the boot. ‘Come and meet him. I hope you’ve got some garlic handy.’ ‘Silly, that’s only good against vampires. What I need is a silver bullet, and I’m fresh out of those. I’ll put them on my shopping list.’ ‘You may joke now,’ Drew responded, seeing her determination to make light of the situation as a bad sign. ‘I only hope you don’t end up laughing on the other side of your face.’ Kathryn slipped an arm through his and squeezed gently. ‘Don’t worry, Drew. I can take care of myself.’ He looked at her doubtfully. ‘Hmm. Famous last words. Oh, well, I’ve had my say. It’s up to you now.’ The sound of footsteps came from inside as Kathryn replied, ‘I’m a big girl. I had my twenty-sixth birthday a month ago, remember.’ ‘I know; I was there. And, I’m happy to say, you were very well behaved. Perhaps you are getting some sense after all. Am I being overprotective?’ She smiled at him. ‘Just a bit, but you’re allowed.’ ‘It’s just that with my flying off to Germany tomorrow I won’t be here to protect you.’ Would her family ever stop protecting her? she wondered wryly. ‘Stop worrying. I’ll be fine. But if worse comes to worse, I’ll let you say I told you so.’ The door opened before Drew could respond by telling her it didn’t make him feel any better. Framed in the doorway, a cheerful woman in her sixties smiled warmly at them. ‘Good afternoon, Mr Templeton. You made good time, then?’ she greeted Drew, and nodded at Kathryn, stepping back so that they could enter. ‘I thought it best not to keep him waiting, Agnes. Didn’t want to make him testy,’ Drew said, urging Kathryn inside ahead of him, where the warmth enveloped them both. ‘Agnes is Joel’s housekeeper, and all-round good egg. This is my cousin Kathryn. She’s come to the rescue.’ The older woman looked at Kathryn more closely and her face fell comically. ‘Oh dear,’ she said faintly, and Kathryn frowned in ready concern. ‘Is something wrong?’ ‘Not at all, my dear,’ Agnes denied as she closed the front door. ‘You’re very welcome, I’m sure. It’s just…. you’re very pretty.’ ‘Ah,’ said Kathryn, seeing the light, and couldn’t help laughing, though not unkindly. ‘It’s all right, Agnes. Drew has told me all about our furry friend.’ ‘Furry friend?’ It was the housekeeper’s turn to look puzzled. Kathryn leant down towards the woman, who was a good half a head shorter. ‘The wolf,’ she whispered confidentially. ‘Don’t worry, I had a tetanus booster not long ago.’ ‘Just lead us to him, Agnes,’ her cousin suggested, setting their bags at the foot of the stairs and removing his coat. He handed it to the housekeeper and Kathryn did the same. ‘My cousin has a weird sense of humour. Don’t try to understand her.’ Agnes, far from being put out, suddenly had a twinkle in her eye. ‘Something tells me somebody might just have met his match. You’re not at all what he was expecting. For one thing, he was expecting a man. You’ll find him in the library, gnashing his teeth and cursing till the air is blue. I’ll bring along some coffee in a few minutes. Unless you would prefer something else?’ Kathryn said coffee was fine, and Drew led the way to the back of the house, then along a passage to the west wing. As he opened the door, Kathryn felt her heart rate increase in sudden expectation, and smoothed the blue chenille jumper she wore with leggings down over her hips. As she followed her cousin inside, she heard a husky voice growl a greeting. ‘It’s about damn time you got here!’ it said, and she grimaced. It sounded very much as if the wolf had a sore head. She almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Stepping inside, she caught her first glimpse of the man she had heard so much about. Joel Kendrick was certainly impressive. He stood by the fireplace, where a fire blazed welcomingly, a glass of what appeared to be whisky in his hand. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped, and clearly at the peak of fitness. He wore jeans which hugged his long muscular legs, and a black sweater which outlined a powerfully masculine physique. He was somewhere in his mid-thirties, she guessed, with hair so dark it appeared blue where the light caught it. His face, even from the side, was most definitely handsome, but there was a ruggedness about it which prevented it from being too pretty. There was no denying it; he was a very attractive man. In fact, he was the most attractive man she had seen in a long while. She could feel the aura of him even from where she stood, and rather unexpectedly it set her nerve-endings tingling like crazy. Even stationary he had a kind of dynamic magnetism which reached across the space separating them and touched her. At its basic level, it was the female responding to a prime example of the male of the species. Translated to the present day, it meant she could no more ignore him than she could stop breathing. It wasn’t at all what she’d been expecting, but she wasn’t overly alarmed by it. On the contrary, it added a certain spice to the situation. It was time to make her presence felt. ‘As we didn’t have Scotty to beam us through the air in a split nanosecond, I think we did a pretty good job getting here so quickly,’ she put in before Drew could utter a word, and instantly found herself staring into piercing blue eyes. They were the sort of eyes which, in certain circumstances, would create havoc with a woman’s senses, and when they locked with hers that was precisely what they did. Because something elemental connected them in the space of a heartbeat. The air seemed to sizzle and hum between them, as if it had taken a positive charge. It was pure chemistry, and a look was all it had taken to set off a chain reaction. The attraction was instant—and mutual. Kathryn experienced a familiar curling sensation inside her. She acknowledged it with a shiver of excitement. Attraction, pure but not so simple. Just as she had supposed, the man had sex appeal oozing from every pore, and it had struck her on a primitive level. Her senses responded by setting every nerve in her body tingling. Given his visual attraction, she wasn’t surprised to feel it, but she was surprised by its strength. The man had something, and whatever it was her senses liked it. Liked it a lot. His eyes as they roved over her were like a lick of flame, and she wondered if it had been wise to wear leggings tucked into knee-length boots for the journey. It showed off altogether too much of her to his gaze. Not that she revealed her concern for an instant. Every instinct she possessed told her that he was not the sort of man you gave any sort of weapon to. ‘And you are?’ Joel Kendrick asked curiously, in a voice laced with a lethal brand of husky sensuality. Setting his glass aside, he slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans, a move which tightened the material around his thighs and raised her temperature accordingly. The man was pure dynamite, she acknowledged wryly, and all done without even trying. It was stunning. Nobody had had quite this effect on her before. How could she possibly ignore it? Did she want to? That imp of devilment which was always under indifferent control now decided to come to the surface, and, as Drew had feared, she didn’t resist it. ‘I’m the woman you’ve been waiting for,’ she quipped back with a deliberate mix of seduction and mockery. Amusement flickered in those devilish blue eyes. ‘Is that so?’ he drawled softly, giving her his full attention in a way that set up goosebumps on her flesh. Caught between them, Drew rolled his eyes despairingly. ‘Kathryn, cut it out!’ he ordered. ‘Shut up, Drew,’ Joel commanded quietly, strolling towards her. ‘This is just getting interesting.’ Coming to a halt a mere foot away, he smiled lazily, an action that threatened to steal her breath away. ‘So, I’ve been waiting for you, have I?’ She inclined her head, smiling sweetly, whilst her heart raced away at a mile a minute at his closeness. ‘Impatiently, by the sounds of it.’ He shrugged that off without taking his eyes from her. ‘My temper’s been a bit frayed lately, but it’s improving by leaps and bounds now.’ Kathryn laughed, a sultry sound that made something flare to life in the depths of his eyes. ‘I have that effect on people.’ She knew she was behaving outrageously, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. ‘In fact, they’ve been known to hug and kiss me on sight.’ He grinned, and there was definitely something wolfish about it. ‘I can quite see why. I’m tempted to do the same.’ Oh, boy, he had the charisma to make a woman forget her principles just when she ought to be standing on them, she decided as she held up an admonitory hand to keep him at bay. ‘I should wait until you’ve seen what I can do first.’ Joel laughed, sending a tingle down her spine and curling her toes. ‘I’m impressed already.’ Drew, by this time, had steam coming out of his ears. He crossed over to them and took Kathryn by the arm. ‘OK, that’s enough!’ he exclaimed, and she turned startled eyes on him, having quite forgotten he was there. ‘When you’ve quite finished playing games, perhaps I should introduce you.’ A faint flush skimmed her cheeks, but it had nothing to do with his remonstration. She mouthed the word ‘sorry’ to him. It was partly true. She was sorry for upsetting him, but not for behaving as she had. It had been fun. It had been exciting. Her heart was still tripping madly, with no sign of slowing. Boy, the man was positively lethal. He had switched her senses on like a neon light. So that was what it felt like to flirt with the world’s number one playboy! It could become addictive. Already she wanted more. Drew, meanwhile, was making the promised introductions. ‘Joel, this is my cousin, Kathryn Templeton. She’s here to sort out your computer for you.’ Joel’s eyes immediately narrowed on her thoughtfully. ‘Ah, now I get it. That’s what makes you the woman I’ve been waiting for.’ ‘Impatiently,’ she added for good measure, laughing into his eyes. He took a deep breath, which expanded his chest magnificently. ‘Well, let’s hope you’re as good with bits and bytes as you are with words, Kathryn Templeton.’ Another laugh escaped her. ‘With all modesty I can say I’m better.’ One eyebrow quirked lazily. ‘All modesty? You don’t believe in hiding your light under a bushel?’ She shrugged and exchanged a knowing look with her cousin. ‘In my family you have to fight your corner or sink without trace. I don’t intend to be the next Titanic.’ ‘Competitive, are they, your family?’ ‘Like you wouldn’t believe. I have four older brothers,’ she admitted, not to mention her father. She tucked her arm through Drew’s. ‘This side of the Templeton clan is protective and supportive without being combative, I’m happy to say.’ Joel rubbed his chin wryly. ‘Which means he’s probably warned you about the Big Bad Wolf.’ ‘Of course. He doesn’t want to see me devoured like Red Riding Hood,’ she responded brightly. Joel looked amused. ‘Something tells me if I tried it, I’d probably get indigestion.’ ‘I’m certainly too rich for some people’s taste,’ Kathryn agreed breezily. ‘An acquired taste?’ ‘Absolutely.’ His expression revealing equal amounts of intrigue and appreciation, Joel Kendrick held out his hand. ‘It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Kathryn Templeton,’ he declared, his voice again carrying that husky sensuality which found its mark and set the nerves in her stomach quivering. Nonetheless, she smiled back. ‘Likewise, Mr Kendrick,’ she returned smartly. ‘Joel,’ he prompted with a decided gleam in his eye as she took his hand. ‘Joel,’ she repeated obediently, a cool smile hovering about her lips. What happened next rocked her belief in her ability to remain detached and in control. As their hands touched, she looked into those wickedly alluring, fathomless blue eyes and found herself drowning in them. For an instant she lost her bearings entirely. Her nervous system went into overload and her breath got lodged in her throat, so that she forgot to breathe. The swiftness of her response to him was stunning. She had felt sexual attraction before, but never experienced quite this brand of magnetic potency. It drew her as nothing else had. Sensible thought was vanquished by a tidal wave of sensuality. In the flicker of a heartbeat she wanted him. Craved him like a hungry woman craved food, and her body swayed towards him, seeking appeasement. Seeking… The sound of a polite cough gathered her scattered wits into a seething whole, and Kathryn careened back into the present with a gasp. She had an instant to see the answering passion in those blue eyes before the instinct of self-preservation took over and she swiftly hid her thoughts behind practised calm. She eased her hand away just as Agnes brought in a tray of coffee, and she turned to the woman, grateful for the breathing space. Joel Kendrick had proved to be more than a little overwhelming close up. Always before she had had the ability to keep a cool head, but this man had changed that completely. It shook her, and sent a frisson of alarm through her system. Drew was right, this man was different. She had an inkling of what he could do to her, and it was distinctly unsettling. ‘Can I help you with that, Agnes?’ she asked in a voice that thankfully gave away nothing of her inner turmoil. The housekeeper smiled at her. ‘Thank you, my dear. If you’d just move that vase to one side… There.’ She set the tray down whilst Kathryn found another spot for the vase. When she straightened up, she glanced at Drew. ‘Have you eaten, Mr Templeton?’ ‘Not since this morning, Agnes,’ Drew admitted. It was a cue for Kathryn to shoot Joel a mocking look. She might be all of a twitter inside, but not for the world would she let anyone know it, least of all the cause. Keeping up the appearance of normality was suddenly very important. Having started out flirtatiously, she couldn’t now back off without giving too much away. ‘He said we couldn’t spare the time. Food was weighed in the balance against your temper, and found wanting,’ she taunted gently, not averse to saying what she thought. She was here to do him a favour. Her livelihood didn’t rest upon his goodwill. Besides, she felt the need to goad him a little, because the best form of defence was often attack. Until she had had time to think, it seemed the most appropriate thing to do. Joel’s response was to raise an eyebrow, but he said nothing to her, merely turned to his housekeeper. ‘You’d better bring dinner forward, Agnes. I’d hate to see such a beautiful woman fainting away.’ ‘Very good, Master Joel,’ Agnes agreed. ‘I’ve put Mr Templeton in his usual room, and I thought it best to put the young lady in the rose room.’ Joel’s expression became wry, but he smiled fondly at the elderly woman. ‘Quite right. The rose room does have some of the best views.’ ‘And it’s on the other side of the house from you,’ Agnes added pointedly, causing Kathryn to hastily smother a laugh. ‘Now, if you’d give me a hand with the cases, Mr Templeton, I can get the food on the table sooner,’ she declared in her motherly fashion, and bustled out again. ‘Master Joel?’ Kathryn asked in amusement, after Drew had obediently followed the other woman from the room. She had recovered her equilibrium, and felt more able to hold her own with him now that her pulse had steadied. Joel pulled a wry face. ‘Agnes used to be my nanny. She’s been with my family for many years, and nobody wanted to see her go, so her position has changed several times. She was companion to my mother before becoming my housekeeper. She’s more like one of the family now.’ Kathryn felt a curl of warmth grow inside her at his explanation. It showed, she was glad to notice, that there was a softer side to him. ‘I like that.’ Her grandfather, her mother’s father, treated his servants as something below his notice. His only interest in their welfare was in how it would affect him. ‘You approve?’ ‘I always approve of kindness. My grandfather would call it foolish sentimentality,’ she admitted regretfully. ‘You don’t keep somebody on when they’re past their usefulness.’ ‘Your grandfather, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, is a fool.’ Kathryn smiled wryly. ‘Blunt, but true. He’s a cold man. I’ll never understand how my grandmother came to marry him, but it’s no mystery to me why she left. I’m very like her, so I’m told.’ Joel raised an eyebrow questioningly. ‘Don’t you know?’ ‘He won’t have a picture of her in the house,’ she explained evenly. ‘She humiliated him, you see, by leaving. I used to think the reason he didn’t like me was because I reminded him of her.’ Childhood visits to her grandfather’s house had been far from pleasant. ‘But you don’t think that now?’ She smiled and shook her head. ‘The truth is it isn’t in him to love or be loved.’ ‘Whereas you are eminently loveable,’ he declared with a decidedly rakish gleam lighting up his eyes again. Barely recovered from the last time, the nerves in Kathryn’s stomach quivered in reaction, but she laughed and shot him an old-fashioned look. ‘Do you think flattery is going to get you somewhere?’ she asked, sounding far too breathless to her own ears, but thankfully Joel didn’t appear to notice. His grin was charmingly lopsided. ‘A man has to live in hope.’ Kathryn groaned silently. Everything about him pleased her rioting senses. It was amazing she was still on her feet, considering her knees felt like jelly. Still she battled on. Tipping her head to one side, she eyed him thoughtfully. ‘Are you really as good as they say you are?’ He placed a hand on his chest, whilst a smile flickered round the edges of his mouth. ‘In all humility, I couldn’t possibly say.’ Oh, Lord, just let me get through the next few minutes without turning into a gibbering idiot, she prayed silently, as the power of his charm hit her yet more devastatingly. ‘Meaning, if I want to know, I’ll have to find out for myself?’ His shrug was careless, but his eyes glittered invitingly. ‘There’s nothing to compare with first-hand knowledge. You might find it…interesting.’ She was sure she would. This was seduction on the grand scale, and, despite her floundering senses, she met it with a gurgling laugh. ‘I’m sure it would be educational, but there’s always the danger of the commodity being overpriced.’ ‘Trust me,’ Joel urged throatily. ‘I always do my very best to give value for money.’ ‘Hmm,’ she murmured consideringly, whilst the nerves in her stomach fluttered around like demented butterflies. Oh, he was good. He was very good. All he’d done was utter a few innuendoes and she was quivering like a jelly because her mind had filled in the gaps with vivid pictures that definitely needed censoring. ‘I’ve a feeling the woman who mashed your computer felt just a little short-changed,’ she observed ironically, and Joel’s smile vanished like magic. She blinked, surprised to find she had hit a nerve. So the man was vulnerable after all. ‘She took the relationship too seriously,’ he declared shortly, and Kathryn’s heart lurched as she took in the message. She knew it wasn’t specifically aimed at her, but it might as well have been. Her nerves steadied as she heeded the warning shot across her bows. ‘Perhaps she didn’t intend to. Perhaps she fell in love with you,’ she suggested, and her lips parted on a soft gasp as her statement brought a chilly glitter to his eyes. ‘I didn’t ask her to,’ he added grimly, and she laughed chidingly, ‘Nobody asks to fall in love, they just do,’ she argued, stating what most people accepted as universal, but Joel looked at her steadily. ‘I don’t, and I never intend to. I make no secret of it.’ Kathryn felt a chill wind brush past her and shivered faintly because he had sounded so adamant. ‘How can you be so certain you’ll never fall in love?’ she asked curiously. It seemed to her a rash statement to make. ‘Because in order for it to happen you have to believe in it, and I don’t believe in love,’ he told her firmly, but she saw the flaw in his argument immediately. ‘You love Agnes,’ she said softly, and his eyes narrowed. ‘That’s different. The kind of love we’re talking about between a man and a woman doesn’t exist.’ The flat statement, in direct opposition to her own belief, couldn’t pass without argument. ‘There are countless millions of people out there who would disagree with you. They can’t all be wrong.’ He dismissed them, and her, with a shrug. ‘If they want to believe in fairy tales, I won’t stop them.’ Kathryn shook her head sadly. ‘You know, beliefs like that are likely to get shot down in flames. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day love hit you right between the eyes and proved you wrong.’ Joel laughed out loud, his good humour restored as quickly as it had departed. ‘I won’t be holding my breath. And don’t you let those rose-coloured glasses of yours trip you up. I wouldn’t want to see all that beauty spoilt.’ Kathryn smiled at him confidently. ‘It won’t be. You see, I happen to believe the man for me is out there somewhere. I just haven’t met him yet.’ ‘And in the meantime?’ She laughed, her shrug a masterful touch. ‘In the meantime, I enjoy searching, because there are interesting stops along the way.’ He stepped heart-stoppingly closer. ‘Like coming here to sort out my computer?’ His closeness didn’t make thinking easier. Still, she managed to find a chirpy reply. ‘Exactly. If I hadn’t said I’d help Drew, who knows when I would have met another Big Bad Wolf?’ ‘You’re not afraid of me?’ ‘Should I be? Do you intend to devour me?’ she challenged scoffingly, knowing she wasn’t the least bit afraid of him. The fires in his eyes sent out sparks. ‘The idea becomes more enticing by the minute. Doesn’t it?’ he charged softly, the question heavy with meaning, and her breath caught as her stomach twisted with a powerful surge of desire. Her lips trembled faintly, drawing his eyes. Crazy as it was, her flesh tingled as if he had actually touched her. Warning bells went off in her head. ‘I think this is where I should protest that we have only just met.’ Reaching out, he drew a finger lightly across her lips, setting up a tingle she felt to her core. ‘Maybe we have, but it took only a second for both of us to know we want each other.’ Without warning he had brought the unspoken out into the open and her brows rose. Instinct put her on the defensive. ‘Do we know it?’ she charged mockingly, and he nodded. ‘Oh, yes, and I give you fair warning. When I want something, I usually get it.’ Her throat closed over and she had to swallow hard to answer. ‘It never does anyone any good to get everything they want,’ she pointed out with creditable calmness. His smile was pure seduction. ‘Resist it if you want. It makes victory even sweeter.’ Her heart tripped. Like a big cat sensing its prey’s vulnerability, he was trying to outflank her. She couldn’t allow that to happen. ‘Such confidence! You could lose, you know.’ ‘I could, but I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that I don’t.’ Kathryn gasped. ‘Your arrogance is incredible!’ ‘My lovemaking is better,’ he returned sexily, and sent her defences scattering to the four winds. Wow! This man had all the weapons, and then some. Taking a steadying breath, Kathryn urged her fluttering heart to be still. Drew was right; this man was dangerous. If he could make her defences crumble without really trying, what would happen if and when he did try? It was more than time to beat a strategic retreat. ‘I’ll have to take your word on that. For the moment I’m more interested in freshening up before dinner. Agnes has put me in the rose room, isn’t that right?’ she said, with all the composure she could muster. ‘This time I’ll let you run away, but it won’t always be so. Left at the top of the stairs and follow your nose. You can’t miss it. No doubt Agnes will have fitted the steel door by now in an attempt to keep me out,’ he added sardonically, and Kathryn left the room feeling as if she had been put through a wringer. Events had taken an unexpected turn. This was not how she had foreseen the weekend going. Joel had turned her world on its head, and she found herself in a situation entirely new to her. Joel Kendrick wanted her and she wanted him. The problem was, she had never entered into a relationship that had no happy ending in sight. And that, if she responded to the way he could make her feel, was what she would have to do. He had made that very clear. From nowhere, she found herself with some serious decisions to make, and very little time to make them. CHAPTER TWO UPSTAIRS in her bedroom, Kathryn sank down onto the bed and gave her wobbly legs a much needed rest. She felt shattered and intoxicated in equal quantities. Nothing could have adequately prepared her for meeting Joel Kendrick. No advance warnings could have equipped her for the reality. She had thought to have some fun, and certainly hadn’t expected to be attracted to him so strongly, or to have that attraction reciprocated. What she felt went way beyond anything in her experience. She could honestly say she had never felt such an intense physical attraction. It was there between them like a living, breathing thing. What did she do about it? That was the question. She knew what Joel wanted, but what did she want? To have an affair with Joel would no doubt be an incredible experience, but it would break her own rules, because if he were to be believed—and she had no reason to doubt him—there was no future in it. She might like to flirt, but she wasn’t a fool. She never went further unless she thought there might be a future with the man. Only, there was a part of her which said this time was special. That she would be a fool to turn it down. Yet if she took what was on offer, that would be doing what Drew had said, and throwing herself to the wolf. Would being part of his life for a brief time be worth it? Certainly she wouldn’t know unless she tried it. But she was only here for two days. Two days wouldn’t even amount to an affair. It would be, at best, a brief encounter. Surely she had more respect for herself than to give in to her passions for a mere forty-eight hours? With a heavy sigh she fell back onto the bed, knowing the answer. Common sense said it had to be no. She mustn’t allow herself more than a brief flirtation. At least she had an inkling of just how dangerous he could be to her if she wasn’t careful. She was going to have to keep her wits about her, for she didn’t doubt for a moment that he would take advantage of their mutual attraction. His reputation was proof enough. Pride dictated that she must not become his next conquest, no matter how strong the pull on her senses. A soft knock on the door brought her up on her elbow. ‘Who is it?’ ‘Drew,’ the muffled voice responded, and she grimaced, knowing what was coming. ‘Come in,’ she invited, scrambling to the side of the bed and swinging her legs down. Drew looked at her closely as he entered and shut the door, and she wondered what he expected to see. ‘It’s OK, you don’t have to say it, I know,’ she declared wryly, hoping to head him off at the pass. No such luck. Her cousin came and sat beside her, concern heavy on his brow. ‘What were you thinking of?’ he challenged despairingly, and that brought a smile to her lips. ‘It wasn’t the sort of situation where thinking came into it,’ she returned wryly. She had simply responded to the signals coming off Joel, and her own rioting senses. ‘Kathy, this man could break your heart.’ Reaching for Drew’s hand, she squeezed it reassuringly. ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to let him. I have no intention of being seduced.’ ‘But you are attracted to him?’ Drew persisted, and she shrugged fatalistically. ‘I won’t deny it. He’s a very attractive man. But I’m not stupid, Drew. I know where to draw the line.’ He didn’t look totally convinced, but grudgingly accepted what she said with a proviso. ‘Just make sure Joel knows where the line is, too.’ Kathryn stood up and tugged him to his feet. ‘Oh, I intend to. Now, get out of here and let me freshen up. I’m starving, and the smells wafting up are making my stomach rumble. Besides, if I’m quick, I could get a look at that computer before dinner. The sooner I start, the sooner I can be finished and on my way home.’ That clearly met with his approval, and he went without further comment, leaving Kathryn to sigh heavily. Then, because she was a practical person, not given to languishing on thoughts of what might have been, she gathered together her sponge bag and a change of clothes and went in search of the bathroom. As it turned out, Kathryn didn’t get an opportunity to look over Joel’s computer until after dinner. When she went back downstairs, this time dressed in a long-sleeved holly-green dress made of soft wool, she met Agnes coming from the dining room. ‘My, don’t you look nice this evening, miss,’ the housekeeper declared with a warm smile. Kathryn smiled back. ‘Thank you, Agnes. Something smells good.’ ‘Lancashire hotpot. Master Joel’s favourite. The table’s set, so it won’t be more than a few minutes now. If you go into the sitting room, you can help yourself to a drink before dinner,’ Agnes suggested, pointing to a door on the other side of the hall. Realising her hope of looking over the computer had to be abandoned, Kathryn obediently made her way to the sitting room. It was a pleasant room, with comfortable sofas and armchairs surrounding the brick fireplace where another fire blazed cheerfully. Drinks were set on a tray on the sideboard, and Kathryn helped herself to a small Martini. If she wanted to get some work done later, drinking too much now would be inadvisable. She was studying a group of photos on the mantel-piece when a subtle shift of the air told her Joel had come into the room. She had never been so attuned to a man that she could sense his presence even at a distance. It was uncanny, and she didn’t know quite what to make of it. Turning, she found him just inside the door, studying her with eyes that gleamed appreciatively. In response, her nerves took a tiny leap and set her pulse throbbing. He looked magnificent, and her heart did a crazy lurch as her own eyes ate him up. The white silk shirt and black trousers he now wore barely seemed to tame him. He moved, coming towards her with a lithe, pantherish grace that tightened her stomach with desire. ‘You look good enough to eat,’ he murmured, his gaze setting her nerves alight with such disconcerting ease it was a wonder she didn’t melt on the spot. ‘I thought hotpot was your favourite,’ she countered, far too breathlessly for comfort, and he was smiling softly as he looked deeply into her eyes. ‘When it comes to food, yes. However, the appetite you arouse will settle for nothing less than your presence in my bed.’ It was heady stuff on an empty stomach, and she groaned silently, aware that her body responded to every soft word with a will of its own. Still, she had made her decision and would stick to it. ‘If you check with the management, I think you’ll find I’m not on the menu,’ she returned smoothly, watching the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when his smile deepened. He bent towards her confidingly. ‘Could you really watch me starve?’ he taunted softly, and she raised an eyebrow quizzically. ‘Somehow, I don’t think you’d starve for long,’ she quipped, and strangely enough it hurt to say it, which was odd, for she had always known she was not important to him. She was no more than a passing fancy because she was here. ‘Ah, but sometimes hunger can only be satisfied by one thing—or one woman,’ Joel insisted softly. Kathryn took a steadying sip of her drink, fearing he was right. He had come out with all guns blazing this evening, and the attack on her defences were definitely weakening them. She needed the drink to strengthen her resolve. ‘But hunger is such a contrary thing. Now it wants one thing; next time it wants something completely different,’ she countered, but he shook his head. ‘Not always. Sometimes it takes a very long time for hunger to be satisfied.’ ‘Just not for ever,’ Kathryn shot back pointedly, and he acknowledged the hit with an inclination of his head. ‘No, not for ever. Everything diminishes in time,’ Joel agreed as he wandered over to the drinks tray and poured himself a small whisky. Sipping it, he looked at her over the glass. ‘There is an exception, though I hesitate to mention it, knowing your opinion of love,’ Kathryn reminded him, and he lowered the glass. ‘Do you really think this love you believe in lasts for ever?’ he asked curiously. ‘It can do, but it has to be worked at. You can’t ever take it for granted, but the more you feed it the more it grows,’ she said with utter conviction, and that brought a tiny frown to his forehead. ‘You can say that, even though your own grandparents’ marriage failed?’ She sighed. He had to pick on the one failure to illustrate his case, but his argument was based on a false premise. ‘The marriage failed because there was only love on one side. My mother has told me many times that my grandmother loved my grandfather; she just couldn’t live with his coldness.’ Left alone with her father, it hadn’t been easy for her mother either. In the end it had driven Lucy Makepeace to find a place of her own to live as soon as she was old enough. ‘What happened to your grandmother?’ Joel asked conversationally, sliding one hand casually into the pocket of his trousers. The question caught her off-guard, allowing the old sadness to show in her eyes as she frowned. ‘I really don’t know. There was a messy divorce and a bitter custody battle, which my grandfather won, and that was the last anyone ever saw of her,’ she revealed with a faint shrug of her shoulders. ‘You miss her?’ Joel asked curiously, and Kathryn sighed heavily, because her feelings concerning the situation were more complex than a simple answer could convey. ‘It’s hard to miss someone you never knew. What I miss is not having known her. The person she was. There is so much about her I want to know,’ she said honestly, and her smile was deprecating. ‘I guess I want to ask her why she never came to see my mother. I can’t ask my grandfather because he never speaks of her. It’s a mystery I don’t know how to solve.’ ‘Have you never tried to trace her?’ Kathryn shook her head. ‘I wouldn’t know where to start,’ she declared wistfully, then, because thinking of her grandmother always left her dissatisfied, she made a determined effort to lift her spirits. ‘What about you? Are both your parents living?’ ‘Oh, yes. They’re still going strong, and seem younger than ever, even though they celebrated their golden wedding last year. At present they’re in Canada, visiting relatives. Then they’re off to Hawaii,’ Joel confirmed, and she tipped her head to one side thoughtfully. ‘So they weren’t the ones who made you so cynical about love. That means it has to be a woman,’ she mused, watching him carefully. But, as she was coming to expect, he gave nothing away. Instead one eyebrow lifted lazily. ‘You think so?’ Kathryn laughed softly. ‘It has to be, and you haven’t denied it. What did she do? Leave you for another man?’ Joel shook his head. ‘She couldn’t, as she’s nothing but a figment of your imagination.’ Her eyes narrowed as she tossed that around in her mind. ‘Hmm, I see. That’s very interesting. If it wasn’t one woman, then it has to be all women. What do we fail to do that convinces you love doesn’t exist?’ She posed the question to herself, and almost immediately saw the answer. ‘We don’t see you as just a man, do we? All we see is a bank balance. An unending source of spending money. That’s it, isn’t it?’ she charged him, convinced she was right. In response, Joel drained his glass and set it aside. When he looked at her again, there was a dangerous glitter in his eyes. ‘You’re very perceptive.’ ‘That’s because I have a similar problem. My father is a very wealthy man, and I’m his only daughter. Which makes me an heiress set to inherit a fortune, and a prime target. There are a lot of men out there who would like to get their hands on the money they think I’ll get one day,’ Kathryn returned with a grimace of distaste. ‘And yet you still believe in fairy stories,’ Joel remarked scornfully, and she tilted her chin upwards defiantly. ‘That’s because I know all men are not the same. Neither are all women.’ He came to her then, his hand reaching out to cup her chin. ‘That hasn’t been my experience. I prefer to believe in what I know exists: desire. Love is a fallacy; sexual attraction is real. You feel it. Right now your heart is beating just a little bit faster, isn’t it? I can see that delicious pulse throbbing in your throat. It’s urging me to kiss it. To know the feel and taste of you,’ he whispered huskily, his eyes glowing with a fierce heat as they looked into hers. Kathryn’s heart lurched in response to the siren call of his desire. She wanted him to do it, too. Her flesh seemed to scream out for it, and it was incredibly painful to step back away from him, forcing his hand to drop to his side. ‘I hardly think this is the time or the place for what you have in mind,’ she told him sardonically, and he smiled faintly. ‘Nevertheless, you felt it. You felt the hunger.’ Oh, boy, had she! Her whole body was still pulsating with it. ‘Maybe I did, but right now I have a more urgent hunger that needs satisfying. I haven’t eaten all day,’ she protested, seeking to bring some order to the sensual chaos she felt whenever he was near. Joel laughed wryly. ‘Then we must deal with that one first. The other will be all the better for waiting.’ ‘What will be better?’ Drew enquired idly as he strolled into the room, looking from one to the other questioningly. Kathryn felt colour heat her cheeks, aware that if he had arrived a few minutes sooner he would have walked in on quite a different scenario, and she wouldn’t have heard the last of it. ‘Dinner,’ she explained with feigned nonchalance. ‘I was just saying I hadn’t eaten all day. I’m starving.’ ‘Me, too,’ Drew agreed, and as if to underline the fact his stomach rumbled audibly. ‘Help yourself to a drink, Drew,’ Joel invited with a laugh. ‘I’ll just go and see what’s keeping Agnes.’ Drew followed the suggestion, but turned to his cousin the instant they were alone. ‘Dinner?’ he challenged with an old-fashioned look. Kathryn stared him out, her chin raised. ‘What else?’ she countered, daring him to argue, but Drew, for once, wisely decided to hold his own counsel. She drained her glass and was tempted to refill it. Joel had won round one on points; she could only hope to do better in round two. Dinner was every bit as delicious as it had promised to be. The meat and vegetables were cooked to perfection, and there was fresh crusty bread to go with it. The two men spent most of the meal discussing Drew’s trip to Germany tomorrow, and Kathryn was happy to be left alone. She found herself watching Joel with fascination. Even talking business, he had an animation about him that held her rapt. She didn’t bother to follow the thread of the conversation, for Drew’s job was as much a mystery to her as hers was to him, merely sat and enjoyed the view. ‘I’m sorry,’ Joel apologised later as they sat over coffee. ‘It was rude to exclude you, but there were certain matters I needed to touch base on with Drew before he leaves.’ Kathryn shrugged that off. She wasn’t so vain she needed constant attention. ‘No problem. I was far more interested in my food. Agnes is a wonderful cook.’ ‘I’ll be sure to tell her you said so,’ he responded, pushing his empty cup away. ‘It’s not too late. If you’re not too tired, we can take a look at the computer now,’ he declared with a glance at his watch. Kathryn was never too tired to work on a computer. ‘That’s fine by me.’ She nodded, and stood up. ‘Are you coming, Drew?’ ‘I’ll beg off, if you don’t mind. Computers are a complete turn-off for me. Go ahead and enjoy yourselves,’ he teased, though, unseen by his cousin, his smile faded as he watched them leave. Joel’s study was at the rear of the house and was set up with state-of-the-art equipment from the computer itself, to fax machines, printers and scanners. Everything he could possibly need was there, but he couldn’t use it because of what one woman had done in anger. ‘So, this is the scene of the crime,’ Kathryn declared dryly, looking around her with interest. ‘At least she didn’t resort to smashing things. OK, let’s see just what damage she did do.’ Making herself comfortable at the desk, she switched the computer on, and the first thing that appeared was a message informing Joel he had mail. ‘The Internet’s working at least,’ she observed wryly, hoping it was a good sign that things weren’t too bad after all. ‘Want to see what it is?’ Standing behind her, his hands resting on the back of her chair, Joel nodded. ‘OK.’ Clicking on the box, Kathryn watched the screen unfold. The message itself was short and sweet, and originated from someone called Magda. ‘That’s her, I take it?’ she enquired with lashings of irony, for the message was explicit about what Joel could do with certain parts of his anatomy. ‘She has a volatile temper,’ Joel said by way of confirmation. That much was obvious. ‘Her knowledge of human anatomy seems a little basic. Does she know you can’t actually do that?’ she taunted over her shoulder. ‘Just get on with it, will you?’ he growled irritably, and she bit back a smile. Right now he was more like a grouchy bear than a wolf. Kathryn started hitting keys. ‘I’d get on better if you weren’t breathing over my shoulder,’ she remarked. It was unsettling, not to say downright distracting. She could feel the heat of his body even through the chair, whilst her nose was assailed by the tangy scent of his cologne mixed with pure male essence. It sent messages to her brain that were totally out of place, even if they were undeniably tantalising. Instead of moving away, Joel lowered his head until his mouth was next to her ear. ‘Does my being this close bother you?’ he asked in that sexy drawl which crawled over her flesh, starting up flash-fires which made concentrating on the job at hand extremely difficult. Feeling too hot and far too bothered for comfort, she nevertheless denied it. ‘Not at all.’ ‘Liar,’ he taunted with a chuckle, and she closed her eyes momentarily as a powerful wave of desire swept through her system. She was glad she was sitting, because standing would have been an effort. He was playing hardball, and it didn’t help that her senses were fighting on his side. ‘Abuse me at your peril,’ she warned him, her fingers flying over the keys whilst she struggled to appear cool, calm and collected. It was nothing short of amazing that she never hit a wrong one. ‘I can probably do a lot worse to your hard drive than dear Magda did,’ she added, then sat back with a tiny frown creasing her forehead. ‘How does it look?’ Joel asked seriously, and she folded her arms. ‘It looks as if she was seriously miffed with you!’ Kathryn exclaimed sardonically. From her very brief perusal it was hard to say just how extensive the damage was, but one thing had swiftly become apparent. Magda was no novice when it came to computers. She had known what she was doing. ‘We’ll take that as read, shall we?’ Joel suggested tersely, and Kathryn obligingly subdued her amusement. ‘OK, seriously. Have you any idea what’s missing?’ ‘All the work I’ve been doing on several new projects.’ ‘Did you keep back-up files on disk?’ One look at his face told her the answer to that. ‘I made back-up files in the system, but I couldn’t find them. I presume she deleted them, too.’ Kathryn sighed heavily. ‘In future I suggest you copy sensitive material on disk and put them somewhere safe. At a guess, I’d say all your files are gone. The question is, was she mad enough to wipe them entirely, or did she just trash them? Which means we can retrieve them with a bit of work. Now, if she really wanted to be mean, she could have infected you with a virus.’ ‘I keep the anti-virus constantly updated,’ Joel informed her, and she was relieved, because they could be darned tricky devils. ‘Thank goodness for that. Still, I’ll check that she didn’t set a booby-trap before continuing. You realise there’s every probability she wasn’t actually physically here, don’t you? She would have logged into your database from her own computer. At a guess, I’d say behind her undoubted feminine attractions dear Magda is a dedicated computer hacker,’ she declared, looking up to find Joel frowning ferociously. Catching her eye, he grimaced. ‘I had no idea,’ he admitted reluctantly. The confession brought a mocking smile to her lips. ‘Yes, well, her brain wasn’t what you were interested in, was it?’ she pointed out dulcetly. Give him his due, Joel smiled ruefully, acknowledging the hit. ‘We didn’t do a lot of talking,’ he confirmed, and she shook her head. ‘Perhaps you ought to start vetting your women a little more closely. This is the twenty-first century. Women are not merely sex objects any longer. They have brains, and have even been known to use them.’ Straightening, he moved round her and propped a hip against the desk, folding his arms as if prepared to stay there for ever. ‘I’m fully aware of that. I employ a good percentage of women in high-profile positions within my organisation.’ He rose a notch in her estimation. ‘I’m glad to hear it.’ Joel tutted. ‘Can we keep to the point? What I want to know from you is, can you repair the damage?’ Reproved, she folded her hands in her lap. ‘Yes, I can. But it’s going to take longer than I expected.’ His relief was palpable. ‘Take all the time you need. It goes without saying I will pay you whatever you ask. I’m not going to quibble over the bill, because I need those files, and I need them yesterday.’ Kathryn smiled sweetly and pushed up her sleeves. ‘Then you’d better let me get on with it. As soon as I’ve checked that there will be no nasty surprises, I’ll be able to move along more quickly. Would you have Drew get my box of tricks for me?’ she asked as she reached for the keypad once more. ‘I’ll get it. What does it look like?’ ‘It’s a small black case. I left it on the dresser in my room,’ she responded absently, her mind already running through the checks she would have to make. She didn’t hear Joel leave the room, or come back a little later with the case, which he set on the desk beside her. It was late when she finally closed down the computer and pushed back the chair with a groan as her body protested at having been fixed in one position so long. Yawning, she stretched, easing out the kinks. ‘Well, what’s the verdict?’ A soft voice posed the question from the other side of the room, and she very nearly jumped out of her skin. Her arms dropped, and, turning startled eyes in the direction the voice had come from, she discovered Joel sitting at his desk, a sheaf of papers in his hand. ‘Have you been there all the time?’ she charged in amazement, and he nodded. ‘Pretty much. I went out for coffee once. Yours will be stone-cold by now,’ he told her with some amusement, and Kathryn blinked, only now seeing the cup which had been set at her elbow. ‘I didn’t hear you,’ she confessed, and he laughed softly. ‘A herd of elephants could have stampeded through here and you wouldn’t have heard them,’ he retorted with wry humour. Her grin was rueful because it was all too possible. ‘I do tend to get a little wrapped up in my work.’ ‘Just a little,’ he agreed. They exchanged smiles, and in the blink of an eye the air seemed to thicken. Kathryn saw the look in his eyes change until its intensity scorched her and her eyes widened, her lips parting on a tiny gasp. ‘Are you going to come over here, or am I going to have to come over there?’ he asked her in a voice laden with so much passion she shivered. Her body quickened, her senses silently screaming that either option would do. But there was still a sensible, sane portion of her brain in control, and she shook her head, albeit without any great deal of conviction. ‘I think…’ she began, only to stop when Joel set his papers down and rose to his feet. ‘Don’t think,’ he ordered huskily, rounding the desk and coming towards her. ‘I’ve been sitting here watching you chew on those luscious lips of yours for the past two hours and it’s been driving me crazy,’ he added with a groan. Reaching out, he took her by the shoulders and lifted her to her feet. Kathryn tried to protest, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her hands rose to his chest to hold him off, but that was as far as they got. Instead of pushing him away, her fingers registered the heat of him and spread out like tiny fans to claim all of him they could. Swallowing hard, she stared up at him. Do something, her brain urged, and she did. Her eyelids closed as if weighted and his head descended. When his mouth claimed hers, a wave of such intense pleasure swept through her that her bones seemed to melt. At the brush of his tongue her lips parted, welcoming his possession. In an instant the world spun away. There was only sensation. Somehow her arms were around his neck, her fingers gliding into silky hair and clinging tightly. From a long way off she heard Joel groan, felt his arms tighten, drawing her to his hard male body, and then his tongue was plundering her mouth with a devastating passion, and she met each thrust with her own, stoking a desire that set her blood sizzling in her veins and started up a throbbing ache deep within her. It could have been one kiss; it could have been a dozen. Only the need for air finally forced them apart, and they stared at each other, hearts thumping, dragging gasping breaths through kiss-bruised lips. Joel’s eyes had darkened to a deep stormy blue. ‘I think I got more than I bargained for,’ he confessed thickly. Kathryn knew that she certainly had. She had always known that this man could make her feel with more intensity than any other man she had ever met, but with that kiss she had entered a whole new realm of experience. Her response had been so quick, so intense, so all-encompassing. Nothing would ever compare to it. Nothing would ever come close. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ She made the token protest in a whisper. ‘You didn’t stop me. You didn’t want to,’ Joel pointed out unnecessarily, for she knew how foolish she had been. It was too late to take back knowledge. From this point on she would always know what she was missing. Kathryn pushed herself away from him with very shaky hands. ‘Maybe so, but we both know it was a mistake,’ she said as forcefully as she was able. ‘If that was a mistake, I hope to make more of them,’ Joel responded seductively, and the words trickled over her nerve-endings, setting them fluttering. ‘Don’t,’ she protested, then closed her eyes and sighed heavily. ‘OK, I admit I enjoyed it. But I’m here to work, not indulge in a…a…a liaison with you!’ she continued, with more insistence this time, as her system began to settle down to something approximating normal. His brows rose quizzically. ‘Can’t you do both?’ ‘I don’t want to do both!’ she lied, and they both knew it. ‘Sure you do,’ he countered chidingly, and she groaned, realising she was in a hole that would soon be too deep to get herself out of. ‘I don’t intend to get involved with you, Joel,’ she insisted, notwithstanding. ‘You can say that when not five minutes ago you went up in flames in my arms?’ he charged, and she didn’t thank him for reminding her. Kathryn crossed her arms and raised her chin to a defiant tilt. ‘I am saying it.’ Much to her dismay, he merely smiled. ‘Now that, in my book, constitutes a challenge. It will give me great satisfaction—and you, too—to make you eat your words.’ Kathryn never had been a woman who knuckled under to attempted male domination—as her brothers could testify. She had a strength of will equal to any man, and if she said no, then no it had to be. ‘I wouldn’t attempt it if I were you,’ she warned frostily, and Joel folded his own arms, mimicking her, and smiled again. ‘What will you do to stop me? We’ve already established that when we get into clinches you fight on my side,’ he taunted her, and her eyes narrowed. ‘That won’t be happening again.’ ‘You wish!’ he shot back with a laugh, and she was very nearly tempted to stamp her foot in frustration. She resisted it, however. ‘This is serving no purpose,’ she returned, very much on her dignity. ‘You do what you feel you have to do, but you won’t be getting any co-operation from me.’ ‘Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we? Now, why don’t you slip off to bed? The rest will do you a power of good,’ Joel suggested, and she took umbrage at his tone. ‘Don’t order me about. I’m not a child.’ The glint in his eye deepened. ‘Don’t I know it! You’re very much a woman, Kathryn Templeton.’ How did he manage to turn the tables on her so easily? ‘You are the most… Oh, I’m going to bed!’ she exclaimed in frustration, needing to put some space between them so she could regain her equilibrium. ‘Goodnight,’ she said as she headed for the door. ‘Goodnight, Kathryn,’ he called after her, and the sound of her name on his lips was a seduction in itself. ‘Sweet dreams.’ Her response to that was to close the door firmly behind her and head for the stairs. She was pretty certain she would dream, but no way would it be sweet. Oh, no. The way things were going, her dreams were more than likely going to be hot and steamy in the extreme. As she mounted the stairs she was very much aware that, for a woman who had no intention of getting involved with a man, the prospect didn’t disturb her the way it ought. CHAPTER THREE KATHRYN breakfasted alone the following morning, which suited her mood just fine. She had slept, but her dreams had been every bit as erotic as she had suspected they would be. It had been a frustrating night in every sense of the word, and as a consequence she felt less than at her best. Drew had departed first thing to catch his flight to Germany, and that didn’t help cheer her up any, but when Agnes informed her that Joel had insisted on driving him to the airport she breathed a sigh of relief. Putting off the moment of seeing him again seemed like a good idea with a man as perceptive as Joel Kendrick. She was sipping at a second cup of coffee when she finally heard the car return, and instinctively braced herself. He came in not long afterwards, and, as before, she felt his presence like a charge in the air. She didn’t turn around, though, and therefore jumped like a scalded cat when his hands descended on her shoulders and he bent to press a tingling kiss to the tender skin of her neck just below her ear. ‘Good morning, Kathryn,’ he greeted warmly, and released her before she could have the satisfaction of pulling away. Annoyed that she hadn’t anticipated the manoeuvre, she glowered at him as he poured himself some coffee, then pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down. ‘Good morning,’ she returned frostily, and his brows shot up above dancing eyes. ‘Didn’t you sleep well?’ he asked, sounding concerned, but she knew that wasn’t what he was thinking at all. He knew. Don’t ask her how, but he knew. ‘I never sleep well in strange beds,’ she countered, not giving him the satisfaction of confirming that dreaming of him had made her so restless. ‘But as it’s only for two nights, I think I’ll survive it.’ ‘Actually, it could turn out to be more. There’s a weather front moving in, and they’re promising us strong winds and some serious snowfall,’ Joel enlightened her, resting his elbows on the table and sipping his coffee as if he hadn’t a care in the world and hadn’t just dropped a potential bombshell. Kathryn frowned sharply. ‘What does that mean, exactly?’ Surely she would be able to leave tomorrow? She had to. She was counting on it, she thought, a shade too desperately for comfort. Joel disabused her in no uncertain terms. ‘It means we could wake tomorrow to find ourselves snowed in for the duration. Something we’ve become used to up here.’ ‘You’re not serious!’ Kathryn gasped in dismay, only to see him nod. ‘It was already beginning to snow as I drove home. But don’t worry. If it does happen, you’ll be perfectly safe here.’ Kathryn was not comforted. The definition of ‘safe’ depended on your point of view. It would not be safe being snowed in here with him, yet she couldn’t leave until she had done the work she had promised. Whichever way you looked at it, she was trapped. She just had to hope and pray the snow held off long enough for her to get the work done and leave on time. She sipped at her coffee, her free hand absently rubbing over the spot his lips had touched. Her skin still tingled with the charge which had ripped along her nervous system. It was incredibly stimulating, but it wasn’t going to change her mind. She wouldn’t get involved with him. Sighing, she glanced up, right into a pair of twinkling blue eyes. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925522&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.