Just thinking like this flustered her, and she couldn't wait for the meal to finish, hastily rejecting his offer to help with the washing-up, rambling on about doing it herself after he had gone because she found it strangely relaxing. Good heavens. Washing dishes was something she found strangely tedious, but the thought of standing next to him at a kitchen sink and doing a mundane domestic chore was almost beyond her level of tolerance.
âWhat about the drawings?' he asked, after she had cleared the table and positioned herself by the kitchen door in readiness for his departure. He stood up, stretched slightly, and she dragged her eyes away from him.
âIn the sitting room, I guess,' she said brightly, with a sinking heart. She had forgotten the wretched drawings.
They walked through to the sitting room, where the lighting seemed mellow and intimate after the fluorescent glare of the overhead kitchen lights, and she sat down on the edge of the sofa and waited as he pulled some papers out of his briefcase.
Then he sat next to her and spread the drawings out on die low, square coffee-table in front of them. His weight had depressed the sofa. She could feel her thigh lightly touching his and she did her utmost to ignore the sensation. She peered obligingly at the various angles he was pointing out to her, and she nodded and made all the right noises under her breath, but her eyes were mesmerised by his long fingers, and against her his thigh was scorching through her jeans, making all her nerve-endings come alive.
These are the originals,' he said, inclining very slightly to look at her, and their eyes tangled, brown with blue. Their faces were so close that she could see the fine lines around his eyes, could appreciate the dark thickness of his eyelashes. Could eyelashes be sultry? There was something sultry about his eyelashes. âNaturally, I shall get copies for the court appearance next week.'
âNaturally,' Jessica said faintly.
âIf you want to hang on to these for the weekend...? Have a look at them?' He was looking at his watch, standing up, and she wondered whether he had had enough of her company now. The novelty of conversing with an intelligent woman was wearing off. It was time for him to be on his way. His mind was already striding ahead, planning the rest of his weekend. Was there a replacement Rachel hovering somewhere in the wings? Probably.
âYes, that would be helpful.' She levered herself off the couch and plastered a bland but wide smile on her face. âNow, I think my work with you is pretty much finished,' she said, holding on to the smile with difficulty, but loath to let go of it because she had no idea what it would be replaced by. âSo next week I shall take up permanent residence once again at my own office.' She walked him to the door, arms folded.
âAnd take over where Robert left off.' He turned to her with a smile. âWhatever the outcome, you appear to have done a thorough job on this damned lawsuit.'
âAs thorough as any man?'
He raised one eyebrow expressively. âIs that a hint that you want an apology from me?'
âI wouldn't be so mad,' she said wryly, and in the awkward intervening few seconds, as she wondered what next to say, he solved the dilemma by holding out his hand.
âGood work, Miss Steam. You have the job.' He grinned as he shook her hand, then- he was gone. Out of the door. into his car and away into the night.
On a handshake.
She shut the door reflectively behind her and the last thing to go through her head that night was the foggy image of his mouth on hers, his hands exploring her body, his body against her. No handshake. Just something else.
T was in the newspapers. Bruno Carr, after all, was news. He might not be a movie star, Jessica reflected, or a TV personality, but he had the looks, the money and the charisma to grab headlines. The newspapers carried the same imageâBruno emerging from court with his name fully cleared.
Red-nosed, dosed up with paracetamol, and in bed, Jessica read the full commentary in the business section of the newspaper and then re-read it four times.
We did it! she thought. She might have been an important part in piecing together all the evidence, but it had taken a great deal of persistent hard slog, and she had no doubt that her four staff who had worked overtime and weekends to make sure that the case was wrapped up in the minimum amount of time were feeling as euphoric as she was. If a little less under the weather.
It was just a shame that she couldn't have been at the court to witness the victory herself.
She blew her nose into some tissues and flung them into the waste-paper basket which she had strategically placed next to the bed, and which was becoming progressively fuller.
Brano Carr had swept into her life like a tornado, and now that her part had been played he would vanish without leaving a trace. She lay back on the pillows, closed her eyes and succumbed to feelings of maudlin self-pity.
It was this wretched bug, of course. That was why she felt so low. She had spent the weekend feeling vaguely washed out, and that had progressed onto the familiar aching bones, fever, runny nose and desire to keep the curtains tightly drawn. She hadn't had flu in years. Normally, she was as healthy as a horse.
âYour immune system's up the spout,' her friend Amy had informed her, when she had telephoned earlier in the week to cancel their dinner arrangement. âYou need to take a break.'
So here I am now, she thought glumly, taking a much-deserved break. Who in their right mind would choose to go for a week's vacation to somewhere hot, exotic and sunny when they could lie in bed, sneezing and running a fever instead? That was what standing in the driving, cold rain waiting for a non-existent taxi did for a girl.
She punched the pillows, buried her head in them with a stifled groan, and was debating whether she should bother to leave the bed at all for the rest of the day when the doorbell went.
Through the pillows, it was a muffled noise, and Jessica muttered a venomous, âGo away' to whoever had the nerve to call when she was indisposed.
The rings became less polite and more insistent, and she eventually dragged herself out of bed, slung on her dressing gown and padded across to the front door.
When she yanked it open and saw Bruno standing outside, his hand poised to press the bell again, she scowled ferociously, aware of the less-than-stunning picture she presented with her runny, red nose and her hair flopping every which way as though it hadn't seen a comb in years.
âHow are you feeling?' he asked, and her scowl deepened. It was eleven-thirty in the morning, she was still in her pyjamas and dressing gown, the kitchen was proudly sporting dishes that had not been washed for two days. It seemed a particularly stupid question. âEveryone's very concerned about you. They seem to have been under the illusion that you have an in-built immunity to ill health.' He grinned slightly. âNaturally I rushed over because if that's the case you're about to go down in medical history. There could be a fortune in it for you.'
âI feel the way I look,' she told him, pulling her robe tighter around her and reaching behind with one hand to try and get her hair into some sort of order. âCongratulations, by the way. I read several versions of it in the newspapers.' She gave him a wry look. âNot that it would take a genius to work out what the outcome had been. You'll have to be careful not to blind people with your high spirits.'
âMind if I come in? It's freezing out here. Won't do your cold any good at all if you have to stand by an open door having a conversation with me.'
Come in? A social call? He stared at her, refusing to be willed away, until she eventually stood aside to let him in, then she shoved the door shut behind her.
âI'm not good with people when I'm ill,' she told his back as he headed in the direction of the sitting room, for all the world as though he belonged there. âI'm snappy, short-tempered and I'd really rather just be left alone to get on with my recuperation.' She stood with her hands on her hips and watched as he removed his jacket, dropped it inelegantly on the coffee-table, and then settled into a chair.
âYes, quite a victory.' He didn't pause to let her answer. âAs you couldn't make it to the court, I thought I'd drop by to congratulate you personally on the result.'
âI didn't do it on my own,' Jessica informed him, thawing slightly but still not enough to view his presence in the house with warmth. âWe all worked very hard to make sure that it got resolved as quickly as possible.'
âAnd I have congratulated them all myself.'
âRight That's very good of you.' She paused and sneezed, fishing a tissue out of the pocket of her dressing gown.
âHave you been to a doctor?'
He wasn't going to oblige by vanishing through the front door. Jessica reluctantly sat down on the sofa and tucked her feet underneath her.
She would never have admitted it in a million years, but the thought of being seen by him in all her snuffling lack of glory was enough to make her cringe with self-consciousness. She had always maintained that the body was infinitely less important than the mind, but right now she would have given her right arm to at least have had the foresight to have changed into normal clothes earlier on. Instead of blearily thinking that it involved just too much effort.
âDoctors can't do anything for viruses,' she said. âYou just have to wait for them to take their course.'
âYou look a wreck.'
âOh, thank you very much,' Jessica replied, knowing that it was perfectly true, but nonetheless not caring for his observation. âIt did occur to me when I got up this morning that I should camouflage my red nose under six layers of cleverly applied make-up, but my eyes were watering too much for me to see what I was doing, and I gave up halfway through. 'Course, if I'd known that I was going to be bombarded with visitors, I might have persisted in my efforts.'
âTut-tut. You certainly weren't kidding when you said that all good humour flew through the window the minute you got ill.'
âDid I say that?'
âAlong those lines. Now, why don't you stay where you are and I'll go and fetch you a cup of tea?'
âThat's very kind, but, really, there's no need. I appreciate your gesture in coming over here...' ha, ha â...but I'd really rather be on my own. And I'm sure you can think of better ways of celebrating your victory than sharing a room with me and thousands of contagious little germs....' She yawned, only remembered to put her hand over her mouth halfway through, and squashed herself into a more comfortable position on the sofa.
âNonsense! You should have someone around here, though, to help out if you're ill. Is there no one who could come round and look after you?'
âI don't need looking after!' Jessica said, more sharply than she had intended. âI'm perfectly capable of looking after myself.'
âI take it that means no.' He stood up, waving her back down when she attempted to follow suit, and she heard him as he headed to the kitchen, then the muffled noises of him making them a cup of tea.
Why had she become so defensive just then? He had asked a perfectly reasonable question and she had jumped down his throat, and the worst of it was she knew why. She had no one. Oh, she had a handful of friends. They went out and had a good time every so often, but there was no one who could come around and look after her if she ever needed looking after.
She was twenty-eight years old, successful in her career, owned her own house and could afford to go on holiday whenever she cared to, but what did all that count for when at the end of the day she had no one to share any of it with?
She couldn't remember thinking this way before. She had measured her worth as she'd climbed the steady ladder of success. She had watched as her friends had married, settled down, in a couple of cases had their first children, and she had never felt the stirrings of envy. She had been vaguely curious as to how their lifestyles would change, but she had held on to her own steady fortunes in the never-ending stormy waters of chance with a feeling of relief.
âNot everyone needs a caretaker,' she announced as Bruno walked back in with a mug of tea in his hand, and he looked at her questioningly.
âYou've lost me.'
Jessica took a sip of hot tea, made a face, and then looked at him as he settled on the sofa, which meant that she now wouldn't be able to stretch out her legs if she wanted to.
âI can look after myself,' she told him. âI don't want you to feel sorry for me.'
âI don't recall mentioning that I did.'
âYou don't have to mention it. You can imply it without saying so in so many words.'
âOkay. If it makes you feel happier, I won't feel sorry for you.'
There he goes again, she thought with exasperation, patronising. He
feel sorry for her, and it had nothing to do with her temporary ill health. He felt sorry for her because he compared her to the women he knew, women who went out every night and owned a wardrobe full of designer outfits, women whose lives were never free of men, who skirted from one relationship to another without pause in between. She could feel it in the way he looked at her sometimes.
âGood,' she said, disgruntled.
âHow are you eating?'
âWith my teeth, like everyone else.' His concern, for some reason, was catapulting her into another bout of self-pity. When was the last time anyone had brought her a cup of tea? she thought, on the verge of tears at this point.
âI see your cold hasn't done away with that viper tongue of yours.' His mouth twitched, and she steadfastly refused to look at him. She cradled the mug in her hands, feeling the warm, rough texture under her fingers. It was vaguely soothing.
âHave you eaten?' he asked bluntly.
âWhy? Are you about to offer your talents as in-house chef?' The man was simply trying to be pleasant, but for some reason she found it hard to stomach. She wished he had stuck to the brief he had initially presented to herâof a man who was ruthless, self-assured, autocratic and took pains to hide none of those qualities. She couldn't cope with his wit, his sense of humour and, worst, his attempts to be considerate.
âLook,' he said, standing up, âI'm beginning to wish that I hadn't bothered to drop by. If you'd rather lie and wallow in your misery, then far be it from me to disturb you.' He reached down for his jacket, and Jessica took a deep breath.
âI...' she struggled, looking at her fingers. âI...I'm...'
âI haven't got all day. Spit it out.'
Wasn't that more like it? He damned well knew what she wanted to say, but he was going to make sure that he didn't let her off the hook.
âI'm sorry if I appeared rude.'
Jessica blushed. âOkay. I apologise.' This seemed insufficient. He still had his jacket in his hand, and she now realised that she desperately did not want him to leave. She didn't want her final impression on him to be of an ill-mannered, surly, belligerent woman who had neither the good grace nor common courtesy to express her thanks to someone who had paid her a visit out of kindness. Much as she loathed the thought of being seen as a charity case, which was what his kindness implied.
âI'm so accustomed to my independence that I don't deal very well when my body lets me down. I have a pile of work waiting for me at the office, and I simply cannot afford to take time off to be ill.'
âThe place won't self-destruct because you're out of it for a few days.' He sighed, and she eyed him surreptitiously as he dumped the jacket back on the coffee-table and looked at her. âSo have you eaten? A simple yes or no answer will do.'
âNot much,' Jessica admitted reluctantly.
âI'll make you something.'
Before she could object, he sauntered off and she lay back and closed her eyes. She wouldn't swap her lifestyle for any of her married friends' lifestyles, of course she wouldn't, but for a minute she conceded that there might be one or two advantages to the married life. One of them had to be a husband who fetched cups of tea when necessary. None of her previous boyfriends had ever come near to fitting any such role, and Bruno Carr, despite the fact that he could bring a grin to her lips at the least expected moments, was definitely not the sort of man who could ever be a contender, but... She imagined someone thoughtful, caring, kind, good background and a dab hand at cooking. Might not be too bad after all.