‘Get out of my way, you filthy…’ The woman’s voice trailed off into a sneer as she shoved Ally and her bike out of the way.
Ally stumbled, rammed into the gatepost, the bike’s pedal scrapping against her calf as the woman marched past her and got into a sleek red sports car.
Ally hauled the bike up. She would have shouted after the woman, but she was too tired and too anxious to bother—and anyway the woman wouldn’t have heard her in the rain.
The car peeled away from the kerb in a squeal of rubber.
Ally watched the red tail lights disappear round the corner of the Georgian garden square.
Hadn’t that been Mira Whatshername? The woman the wedding ring she had in her pack was for?
The woman had looked furious. Maybe there was trouble in paradise? Ally pushed the thought to one side.
So not your business.
She wheeled the bike to the back of the mansion house, which stood at the end of the square in its own grounds. Taking a fortifying breath, she propped the bike against the back wall and pressed her freezing finger into the brass bell at the trade entrance.
He won’t answer the door. He’ll have staff to do it. Stop freaking out.
The rain had reached monsoon levels as she’d left Mallow and Sons. It beat down on her now, drenching her. The tiny package she’d collected weighed several tons in the bike bag hooked over her back.
Unfortunately the freezing March rain, and the numbness in all her extremities, not to mention the now throbbing ache in her calf muscle, felt like the least of her worries as the harsh memories continued to mess with her head.
Stepping back from the door, she peered up at the house. Every window was dark, bar one on the floor above. Swallowing heavily, she pressed the bell again, with a bit more conviction. A figure appeared at the window. Tall and broad and indistinct through the deluge. Her heartbeat clattered into her throat.
It’s not him, it’s not him, it’s not him.
The pep talk became a frantic prayer as she detected the sound of footsteps inside the house.
She jerked her bag to her front. She should get the wedding ring out so she could hand it over as soon as the door opened.
She fumbled with the wet fastenings, her heartbeat getting so loud it drowned out the sound of the storm.
A light in the hallway snapped on, casting a yellow glow over the rain-slicked panels, then a large silhouette filled the bevelled glass.
Ally barely had a chance to brace herself before the door swung wide. A tall man filled the space, his face thrown into shadow by the light from the hallway. But Ally’s numbed fingers seized on the bike bag when he spoke—his deep, even voice thrusting a knife into the memories lurking in her belly like malevolent beasts.
The French accent rippled over her skin, sending sickening shivers of heat through her chilled body—and making the ball of shame wedged in her solar plexus swell.
How could he still have the power to do that? When she was a grown woman now, not an impressionable teenager in the throes of puberty?
‘You’d better come inside before you drown,’ he murmured, standing aside to hold the door open.
The manoeuvre lit the harsh planes and angles of his face. Ally stood locked in place absorbing the face she had once spent hours fantasising about.
Dominic had always been striking, but maturity had turned his boyish masculine beauty into something so intense it was devastating.
The blond buzz cut had darkened into a tawny brown streaked with gold, and was long enough now to curl around the collar of his shirt. Those dark chocolate eyes had no laughter lines yet, but then that would have been a contradiction in terms—because the Dominic she remembered had never laughed. A new bump on the bridge of his nose joined the old scar on his brow, while the shadow of stubble marked him out as a man now instead of a boy.
As Ally’s gaze devoured the changes, she registered how much more jaded the too-old look in his eyes had become, and how much more ruthless the cynical curve of those sensual lips.
The inappropriate shivers turned into seismic waves.
‘Vite, garçon, before we both drown.’ The snapped command made her realise she’d been staring.
She forced herself to walk past him into the hallway.
Just give him the ring, then this nightmare will be over.
She bent to fumble with her bike bag, wishing she hadn’t removed her helmet, but luckily he didn’t seem to be looking at her. He had called her a boy, after all.
The drip, drip, drip of the rain coming off her waterproof seemed deafening in the silent hallway as he closed the door.
‘You’re a girl,’ he murmured.
She made the mistake of looking round.
His scarred brow lifted as the chocolate gaze glided over her figure, making the growled acknowledgement disturbingly intimate.
‘I’m a woman,’ she said. ‘Is that a problem?’
‘Non.’ His lips lifted on one side. The cynical half-smile reminded her so forcefully of the boy, she had to stifle a gasp. ‘Do I know you?’ he asked. ‘You look familiar.’
‘No,’ she said, but the denial came out on a rasp of panic as her hand closed over the jeweller’s bag.
Please don’t let him recognise me—it will only make this worse.
She yanked the bag out and thrust it towards him. ‘Your delivery, Mr LeGrand.’
She kept her head bent as he took the package, snatching her hand away as warm fingertips brushed her palm and the buzz of reaction zipped up her arm.
‘You’re shivering. Stay and dry off.’ It sounded more like a demand than a suggestion, but she shook her head.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, drawing out her data console. ‘Sign in the box,’ she added, trying for efficient and impersonal, and getting breathless instead.
He tucked the jeweller’s bag under his arm and took the data-recording device, brushing her hand again.
‘You’re freezing,’ he said, sounding annoyed now and impatient. ‘You should stay until the storm passes.’ He signed his name and handed the device back. ‘It’s the least I can do after dragging you out in this weather on a fool’s errand.’
‘A fool’s errand? How?’ she asked, then wanted to bite off her tongue.
Shut up, Ally, why did you ask him that?
Starting a conversation was the last thing she needed to do. Her heart thumped her chest wall so hard she was amazed she didn’t pass out. To her surprise, though, he answered her.
‘A fool’s errand because I broke off the engagement approximately ten minutes ago…’ The cynical tone reminded her again of the boy.
No wonder Mira Something had been furious. She’d just been dumped.
He ripped open the package and drew out the velvet jeweller’s box, then flipped it open.
Ally’s heart stuttered. The ring was exquisite—a platinum and gold band.
The irony washed through her, as she thought of another ring.
The ring her mother had said his father had offered her all through the summer. A dream that had died that terrible night when Pierre LeGrand had kicked them out, but the loss of which had tortured her mother for the rest of her life.
‘Pierre was the only man who ever really loved me and I ruined it all, baby.’
Her mother had blamed herself, but what had she done to make Pierre so angry?
Dominic snapped the ring box closed, dragging Ally back to the present. ‘Which makes this a rather expensive waste of money.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled, trying to swallow down the volatile emotions starting to choke her. Emotions she didn’t want to examine too closely.
‘Don’t be,’ he said. ‘The engagement was a mistake. The eighty grand I spent on this ring is collateral damage.’
The offhand remark had the shame and guilt twisting in her gut.
She shoved her data device back into the pocket on her bike bag, her fingers trembling with the effort it was taking to hold back the raw emotions.
What was happening to her? Why was she making this into a big thing, when it really wasn’t? Not any more. Her mother was dead, and so was Pierre. It was all ancient history now.
‘I should go. I’ve got other jobs to get to,’ she said. She just wanted to leave. To forget again. It was too painful to go over all those memories. To remember how bright and vivacious her mother had been that summer, and the hollow shell she had become after it.
‘Come in and have a drink, warm up,’ he said, or rather demanded.
Was he coming on to her? The thought wasn’t as horrific as it should have been, which had the knot of shame in her stomach tightening. But then the clammy feel of the soaked and grubby fabric sticking to her skin made her aware of how much like a drowned rat she must look.
This man dated supermodels and heiresses—women with style and grace and effortless sex appeal. Something she had never possessed, even when she hadn’t spent the last six hours cycling around London’s West End in a monsoon.
‘And we can deal with your leg,’ he added.
‘What?’ she mumbled.
‘Your leg.’ The chocolate gaze dipped. ‘It’s bleeding.’
She glanced down to see blood seeping out of a gash on her calf, exposed by a rip in her leggings. It must have been caused by her altercation with his fiancée—or rather his ex-fiancée—and she’d been too cold to feel it.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘I have to go.’
But as she turned to leave, he spoke again.
‘Arrêtes. It’s not nothing. It’s bleeding. It could get infected. You’re not going out there until it has been cleaned.’
The emotion started to choke her. She couldn’t stay, couldn’t accept his kindness—however brusque and domineering.
‘I’ve got work, another job,’ she added, frantically. ‘I can’t stay.’
‘I’ll pay for your time, damn it, if the problem is money. I don’t want an injured cycle messenger on my conscience as well as an eighty-grand ring.’
He was too close, surrounding her in a cloud of spicy cologne and the sweet subtle whiff of whisky. Her pulse points buzzed and throbbed in an erratic rhythm.
But then he hooked a knuckle under her chin, and nudged her chin up.
‘Wait a minute. I do know you.’ His eyes narrowed as he studied her face. For the first time, he was actually seeing her. The intensity of his gaze set off bonfires of sensation all over her chilled skin. She fumbled with the helmet she had hooked over her other arm, desperate to put it on, to stop him recognising her.
But it was too late as the swift spike of memory crossed his face.
‘Monique?’ he murmured.
Tears stung her eyes. ‘I’m not Monica. Monica’s dead. I’m her daughter.’
‘Allycat?’ he said, looking as stunned as she felt.
The nickname reverberated in her head, the one he’d given her all those years ago. The name she had been so proud of. Once.
As if he’d flipped a switch, the adrenaline she’d been running on ever since she’d got the commission drained away, until all that was left was the shame, and anxiety. And the inappropriate heat.
She dragged in tortured breaths, struggling to contain the choking sob rising up her torso. She didn’t have the strength to resist him any more. And what would be the point, anyway?
‘Breathe, Allycat,’ he murmured.
She gulped in air, trying to steady herself, and got a lungful of his scent—spiced with pine and soap.
‘The worst.’ She bit back the harsh laugh at his sanguine tone. And shuddered, the pain in her ribs excruciating as she struggled to hold the sobs at bay.
What exactly are you so upset about? Having Dominic LeGrand pity you isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.
‘I know the feeling,’ he said, the wry smile only making him look more handsome—and more utterly unattainable.
She forced a smile to her lips as she shifted away from him, and scooped up the helmet that had clattered to the floor.
‘It was nice seeing you again, Dominic,’ she said, although nothing could have been further from the truth. Nice had never been a word to describe Dominic LeGrand. ‘I really do have to go now, though.’
But as she headed for the door, he stepped in front of her. ‘Don’t go, Allycat. Come in and dry off and clean up your leg. My offer still stands.’
She lifted her head, forced herself to meet his gaze. But where she’d expected pity, or impatience, all she saw was a pragmatic intensity—as if he were trying to see into her soul. And something else, something she didn’t recognise or understand—because it almost looked like desire. But that couldn’t be true.
‘I can’t stay,’ she said, hating the tremble in her voice.
She didn’t want to feel this weak, this fragile. She hated showing him even an ounce of her vulnerability, because it made her feel even more pathetic.
‘Yes, you can.’ He didn’t budge. ‘As I said, I will pay for your time,’ he added, the tone rigid with purpose.
‘I don’t need you to do that. I’m shattered anyway. I’m just going to cycle home.’ She needed to leave, before the foolish yearning to stay, and have him care for her, got the better of her.
Mon Dieu, who would have thought that Monique’s shy and sheltered daughter would grow into a woman as striking and valiant as Jeanne D’Arc?
‘So there are no more jobs tonight?’ Dominic asked.
The girl frowned, but, even caught in the lie, her gaze remained direct. ‘No, there aren’t,’ she said, the unapologetic tone equally captivating. ‘I lied.’
He let out a rough chuckle. ‘Touché, Allycat.’