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American versus Englishmanâ€”will it be a war of wits, or a battle to find their hearts? Alix hasn’t had much luck in her life, but a trip to London, a matchmaking landlady, and the handsome Scotland Yard detective living above her indicate her luck is about to change. Has she truly found her perfect man, or will the disasters that dog her steps destroy everything she’s hoped for?
Alexandra Freemar should be in heavenâ€”she’s just been handed everything she’s ever wanted on a silver plate: a three month stay in London, the time to write the book of her heart, and the chance to finally prove to her mother that she’s not the miserable failure her past indicates. Free-spirited, unconventional, and able to find the absurd in almost any situation, Alix finds that heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be when fate, in the form of a matchmaking landlady who promises to fix her up with her perfect soul mate, hands her the devilishly handsome man who lives upstairs. Her perfect man? Hardly! Her perfect man is not a workaholic, straight-laced detective inspector from Scotland Yard who wouldn’t recognize fun if it bit him on his (extremely attractive) behind.
Alexander Black is a man with a mission, and no one is going to distract him from that, not even the uninhibited, carefree American who personifies everything he dislikes in a woman: she belittles his devotion to work, insists on dragging him into the most unlikely of situations, exudes sexuality that makes his mouth go dry whenever he’s near her, and teases him with a brashness that’s utterly foreign to him. But underneath that sassy mouth and devil-may-care exterior, he senses a wounded woman who’s calling out to him, and try as he might, he just can’t refuse answering.
“More wine?” Bert asked.
I had half a glass of Chardonnay left. I downed it in one gulp and held my glass out for more.
“There’s not that much to tell,” I fibbed, and let the warmth of the wine spread throughout me, numbing all of the sore parts of my heart and easing the sense of shame slightly. “Last night Alex kissed me.”
“Oho!” Ray said, rubbing her hands and leaning forward to pour me more wine. I dutifully took a few sips, breathing in the heady, sharp smell of the wine. It reminded me of something pleasant, something to do with Alex, something naughtyâ€¦
I blushed at the look Bert was shooting my way and drained my glass hoping either I’d pass out from overindulgence of alcohol, or it would wipe my memory clean of my ungoverned mouth. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that the wine reminded me of somethingâ€¦” I let the words trail away. It was bad enough, I would only make it worse.
Ray sniffed her wineglass. She grimaced, then took a healthy swig. “Don’t know what Black has been doing with his goolies, but I’ve never known any to smell like this.”
I accepted her offer of a refill, and felt it necessary to explain. “They’d don’t smell like this, not exactly, it’s just that the sharpness of the wine reminds me of his noogies. Somewhat. Oh, hell, I’m looped already, I don’t know what I’m saying. Just ignore me.”
I grabbed a hunk of pita bread and dunked it into the tzatziki sauce. Bert laughed as Ray grunted in approval of my enthusiastic praise over the food.
“Truly, Alix, you don’t have to say any more if you don’t wish to. We have no intention of prying into your private life, I just thought that since your family and friends were so far away, you might feel like confiding in someone neutral.”
Tears welled up in my eyes at her kindness. Really, she was so sweetâ€”both of them were. They had taken me into their home, listened to my story, fed me, tried to bolster up my spirits with wine and a friendly shoulder to cry on, and all I did was natter on about Alex’s balls, like they cared about them in the least.
“No, no, I’d be happy to tell you what happened,” I sniffled, and grabbing the box of tissues and a bacon-wrapped shrimp, proceeded to tell them everything about my disastrous experience with Alex. There may have been some slight skewing of the basic events, but I was pretty sure I had covered all of the major points by the time we had killed two more bottles of wine, eaten all of the tzatziki, shrimp, and brie, and gone through countless tissues. I went through the tissues, that isâ€”Bert and Ray seemed to be made of sterner stuff.
By the time I finished my sorry tale, I was lying on the floor with my feet resting on the seat of a chair (Ray swore it would stop my “everlasting grizzling” and she was right. It’s impossible to grizzle for any length of time when you’re lying on the floor with your feet in a chair), Bert was curled up on the couch, and Ray was pacing in circles around us, making periodic grunts of outrage or agreement, as the situation warranted.
“So that’s it, that’s what happened,” I said, finishing my tale of woe and sitting up so I could dab at my still damp eyes. “You can see now why there is no future for Alex and me. We’re just not comparable.”
“Communicable,” Ray said sternly as she held out her hand. I took it and let her hoist me to my none-too-steady feet. “You’re pissed.”
I frowned at her. “I am not! I’m not mad at all, it’s just the way my life always seems to go.”
“The word is compatible,” Bert corrected. “And you’re both a bit squiffy. Pissed means drunk, Alix.”
I nodded and grabbed onto the chair when the room gave a slight twirl to the left. “Oh, that’s right, I knew that. Pants and pissed. Rumping pumps. Got it all up here.” I tapped at the side my head and gave Bert a knowing wink. She blinked owlishly back at me.
“The hell you’re not comparable!” Ray suddenly shouted, swaying gently before me as she poked her finger into my chest. “That rotter has no right treating you like that! Seducing you on the stairs, then dragging you off to his love nest, stripping you naked, then shoving you out the door before you’ve had a chance to get your jollies! Typical man thinking only of himself! It just isn’t right!”
I looked at Bert and grinned. “That’s the most words I’ve ever heard Ray say!”
She sighed, tried to frown, then giggled instead. “Oh dear, I think I’m a bit squiffy as well.”
Ray stalked over to her and put her hands on her hips. “Why shouldn’t you be? That blighter upstairs has taken advantage of this innocent young girl, a young thing come recently to our fair isle, and tossed her out like yesterday’s used paper. We’ve got to do something about it, Bertrice. Fair makes my blood boil, it does!”
I sank bonelessly into the chair that suddenly materialized behind me and waved a languid hand. “I’m afraid, dear, sweet Ray, there is nothing you can do. The man simply doesn’t want me, not even when I bared all of my many and glorious charms for him.”
“Maybe he’s gay,” suggested Bert with a polite little burp. I shook my head and had to clutch the arm of the chair to keep from sliding out of it when the room lurched again.
“Nope. Not possible. My gaydar didn’t go off, and besides, a man who kisses women like he kissed me is not uninterested.” I had a hard time getting that last word out. It took me a couple of tries, but at last I succeeded and continued on, ignoring the snickers from the peanut gallery. “Besides, the stallion was waiting at the door, if you catch my drift. I don’t know what the problem was, exactly. I think he told me, but I’ve forgotten.”
“Not getting away with it,” Ray stormed, and marched over to the door, stopping only to take a long swig out of an empty wine bottle. She belched, waved for us to follow her, and stalked out the door.
I looked at Bert. She looked back at me, sighed, and rose in one graceful motion. It took me three tries to get my feet under me properly, but at last I was mobile, and I made it up the two flights of stairs by clutching the back of Bert’s blouse and holding on for dear life. By the time we reached the top of the stairs, Ray was pounding on Alex’s door and bellowing for him to come out and face her like a man.
“What the hell is going on out here?”
“Oops,” I said, peering around Bert’s back. “I think she woke him up. See what I mean about the stallion being ready at the door? And it’s a lovely stallion, too, isn’t it? I like men who sleep naked, don’t you?”
Alex, standing at his door stark naked, his hair tousled, obviously just arisen from his bed, must have felt the weight of three pairs of eyes dwelling on his rampant nether bits, because he suddenly looked down at himself, swore, and slammed the door shut in Ray’s face.
I released my hold on Bert’s blouse, slumped back against the wall, and let myself slide down to the floor.
“You see?” I asked. “He hates me. One sight of me and he takes his stallion back into the stable before I could even pet it. I ask you, is that the sign of a man who wants to get into my pants?”
“Never mind,” Bert said at the same time Ray started pounding again on Alex’s door. She got two pounds in and was just delivering the third when he whipped the door open again.
Even dragged out of what was probably a sound sleep, the man had quick reflexes. He grabbed Ray’s fist just before it hit his chest, and looked us all over. I was on the floor weeping softly to myself over the sad state of affairs, Ray was struggling to retrieve her hand, and Bert was swaying slightly and patting the top of my head while murmuring soft little platitudes.
“Would one of you care to tell me just what the hell you think you’re doing?” he asked.
I looked him up and down. “I liked you better without the bathrobe,” I said, sniffling.
“Christ, you’re pissed,” he said, narrowing those lovely green eyes at us. “You’re all pissed, aren’t you? Go back down to your beds and sleep it off.”
“Not till I’ve said a few things to you, Black,” Ray said, and pushed past him into his flat.
“Atta girl, Ray,” I bellowed after her. “Give ‘im hell, Harry!”
“Harry who?” Bert asked.
“Dunno,” I said, waving the question away. “It’s an espresso I heard. Why don’t you ask Alex? He probably knows. He’s a smart man even if he doesn’t want me to ride his stallion.”
Bert nodded and turned to ask Alex, but before she could, he muttered an imprecation about women placed on the earth to drive him mad, grabbed Bert and pushed her in to his flat, then marched out to loom over me in an intimidating manner.
“Hi,” I said, trying for a minxish smile.
“Would you like to explain why you and your friends are knocking me up at two in the morning?”
I giggled at the image of him being knocked up, and stroked the top of one of his bare feet. “You have nice feet, Alex. You don’t have six toes or warts or any weird things people can get on their feet. I don’t, as a rule, like feet, but I like your feet. They’re handsome, manly sort of feet.”
He sighed again, then grabbed me under each armpit and hauled me up until I was standing.
“Carry me!” I demanded, throwing my arms around his neck and letting my legs go boneless. He swore again, put an arm under my knees, hoisted me up, and hauled me in to his flat.
Bert was rustling around in his kitchen, singing a little song to herself about tea, while Ray was pacing back and forth in front of his couch.
“Alex,” I whispered into his ear. He stopped before a white chair and turned his head until we were nose to nose. I smiled as I admired his mesmerizing green eyes. “I think you’re in trouble with Ray.”
“Bloody hell, look a him!” Ray turned and caught sight of Alex holding me in his arms. “He’s at it again! This time in front of us! Man’s got no decency, trying to shag poor Alix right there in front of us.”
Bert turned to look while Alex tried to set me down in the chair. I decided he was more comfortable, especially since I discovered I could slip a hand in through the opening of his bathrobe and stroke his chest.
“Alix, stop that,” he growled as I closed my eyes and hummed my happiness over finding such a warm, lovely chest beneath that bathrobe. “Here’s the chair, let go of me and I’ll put you in it.”
“You see?” Ray stormed, stalking over to Bert and waving her hands around wildly. “He’s giving her orders! Just like a man, always giving orders, always telling us what to do. And he’s got his hands all over her!”
“It doesn’t look like he’s shagging her, Ray. He looks like he’s trying to set her down in the chair.”
“Thank God there’s one sober member of this goon squad,” Alex grumbled as he tried to peel me off him without dropping me.
“You smell wonderful,” I said, nuzzling his neck and giving him a few nibbles. “You smell sleepy and male and delicious. I like that. I like you. I like you a whole lot. Let’s go to bed.”
“Alix, please,” he started to say, but stopped when Ray stomped over to him and poked a finger in the part of his chest that I wasn’t covering.
“Look at him! Just look at him! He’s all over her! The randy little sod!”
“You’re a bad, bad man,” I pointed out as I teased my tongue around his ear. “Randying all over me like that when you don’t even like me.”
“Ought to be ashamed of yourself!” Ray said, and poked him in the chest again.
“Ashamed,” I agreed, nibbling gently along the outside of his ear.
A little tremor shook him, then his chest expanded as he took a deep breath. “Christ Almightyâ€””
“Taking the Lord’s name in vain won’t help you, either! If my father were alive, he’d horsewhip you for what you’ve done to that poor girl!”
Alex hitched me up a bit higher. “I haven’t done anything to her!”
“That’s just it,” Ray snapped, and turned on her heel to pace over to the window. “You should have.”
Tears pricked again at the memory of the tragic past evening. “Yes,” I sniffled wetly, and gave him a forlorn little kiss on his jaw. “You should have, but instead you rejected me.”
“Alixâ€¦” He looked from Ray to Bert and back to me. “You’re all out of control, and none of you are making any sense. This is hardly the time to discuss what happened last night. If you still want to talk about it in the morning, I will be happy to explain it to you, but right now I’d like to go back to bed.”
“So would I,” I said snuggling up against him. “Do you prefer grape or banana flavored raincoats?”
“It’s two in the morning,” he added, shaking his adorable head at me.
“I know. They made me come up here. Ray’s mad at you, you know.”
“You’re damned right I’m mad!” Ray nodded, then accepted the cup of tea Bert handed her. “No biscuits?”
“I’m sorry, I hadn’t planned on entertaining this morning,” Alex said acidly, giving me another hitch up his chest, the better to glare at me. “You are the most undisciplined, unsettling woman I’ve ever met. You have absolutely no inhibitions, do you?”
“I’m not the one who answers my door starkers,” I pointed out.
He took a deep breath. “Alix, you have to leave now. You’re not yourself.”
“Everyone rejects me,” I mumbled into his neck, dwelling on that fact. It suddenly seemed important, and very, very sad. Alex was my last hope, and now he, too wanted nothing to do with me.
“Is there a horsewhip around here?” Ray asked, peering around with an avid look to her eye.
“Now, Bert, he hasn’t done anything to deserve physical violence. Although if that mournful tone in Alix’s voice doesn’t tear at his heartstrings, it should. Imagine rejecting such a sweet, lovely girl.”
I sniffled my agreement.
“I didn’t reject herâ€””
“You didn’t boff her either, and that’s a rejection in my book!” Ray said over her shoulder as she poked around in the couple of kitchen cupboards above the two tiny little counters. “There must be biscuits here. Everyone has biscuits. What sort of man doesn’t have biscuits?”
“Maybe he’s not interested in her.” Bert curled up on the white couch after setting two more mugs of tea on the end table.
I put one hand on Alex’s chin and turned his face until we were nose to nose again.
“Are you interested in me?”
He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them and frowned. “Alix, I am not going to discuss this with you now. I’m going to take you downstairs to your flat, and then you are going to sleep. We can talk about thisâ€””
A hot tingle in my eye region heralded the formation of more tears.
“â€”later when you’reâ€¦ah, Alix, don’t cry.”
“Too late.” Two fat tears rolled down my cheeks.
Alex swore again, then turned around and carried me over to the door.
Another tear tracked down my cheek as I grasped the doorknob and turned it.
“Good night, ladies.”
“What? What do you mean good night?” Ray asked, her head in one of his cupboards.
“I mean just that. Good night. I want to talk to Alix, and obviously I can’t do that with you here, so you will please leave now.”
Bert tipped her head to one side as she considered Alex, then nodded and called to Ray as she stood. “He’s right, Ray. This is between the two of them, and we should leave them alone now.”
“Thank you,” Alex said gruffly. Bert smiled and tugged a resistant Ray past him and through the door.
“But I haven’t had my biscuit yet,” the latter said plaintively, still clutching her cup of tea.
“You can have a biscuit at home. Leave them to themselves, Ray.”
“Hrmph.” Ray stopped three steps down the stairs and turned back to Alex. “You’d just better not hurt her again or I’ll find a horsewhip, andâ€””
“I haven’t done anything to hurt her,” Alex protested.
“Yes, you did,” I said softly to his neck, waving my fingers at Bert and Ray.
Alex dropped my legs, but kept an arm around my waist as he closed the door behind us.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I answered the siren call of his bare collarbone, tracing the length of it with a finger. “You have a nice collarbone, too, Alex. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. It’s not your fault, really, no matter what Ray says. She’s just a little sizzled, you know.”
One warm hand cupped the side of my face and tipped my head back until I was looking straight into his green eyes. “I think you’re a bit sizzled yourself, Alix. I’m sorry you were hurt last night, butâ€””
I put two fingers across his lips. The lovely warm fuzzy feeling that had held me in its grip had started to evaporate, and it struck me that Alex had been sorely treated this evening.
“I think I’m the one to give you an apology, what with us descending upon you and waking you up, and seeing you naked, and Ray demanding a horsewhip and biscuits. I’m sorry about that, Alex. Somehow she seemed to get the idea that you were at fault for last night.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
I shook my head. “Yes, it does matter. You have every right to be furious with me. I owe you for the trouble I’ve put you through after trying to seduce you and waking you up like this.”
The look in his eyes warmed me to my toes. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again and shook his head. “Never mind. I’ll take you downstairs now.”
He kept his arm around my waist, allowing me to relax against him as he walked me down the stairs. I was conscious of a terrible sense of injustice regarding Alex, and wondered what I could do to make it up to him, to try and show him how sorry I was for annoying him.
The image of a castle came to mind, pennants flying in the wind. Who wouldn’t like a visit to a castle? That was the perfect solution to my problem. “Windsor Castle!”
“Windsor Castle. It’s a castle inâ€¦uhâ€¦Windsor, I think. That’s what I’ll do,” I said, trying to make him to understand that it was the answer to everything. “You can come with us tomorrow to Windsor Castle. You’ll like it, it’s historic. After Windsor, we’re going to look at the maze at Hampton Court. You’ll like that too, it’s perfect for a detective. You can use your skills to find a way out of the maze.”
Alex was shaking his head, but I ignored that as I reached up to the lintel for the key. “No, really, Alex, it’s perfect, just perfect. I’m sure Karl won’t mind if you come along, and it will relieve my mind greatly.”
“I have work to do this weekend, and I have no intention of being the third man on your dateâ€””
“Oh, it’s not a date,” I said, smiling at him. “It’s just Karl, and you’ll have a wonderful time. We’ll look at Windsor and we’ll look at the castle, and we’ll have races in the maze, and I’ll feel much, much better for having messed up your evening. Doesn’t that sound great? It’s Saturday tomorrow, so you won’t have to work or anything, but you have to be ready early because Karl’s picking me up at the street promptly at nine.”
“Alex, I can’t go. I’ve no interest in Windsor Castle, or Hampton Court for that matter.”
I stopped trying to unlock the door to my flat, the horrible truth striking me as I stood there full of glorious plans for spending the day with Alex. He didn’t want to spend it with me. He truly didn’t want to have anything to do with me, and that business with the stallion waiting at the door was all a sham. My shoulders sagged as I leaned my forehead on the panel of the door. It was nice and cool. “Oh.”
Two hands clamped down on my shoulders. “Alixâ€””
The last little bit of my heart fractured under that husky, sexy voice. “No, it’s OK. I thought we mightâ€¦forget it. It was a stupid idea, you’re right to not want to come. We’ll forget the whole thing.”
I fumbled with the lock, unable to see it through the tears. It struck me I was doing an awful lot of crying since I had come to England, but there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it. Maybe it was something in the water.
“No, I won’t forget it.” The hands on my shoulders tightened and turned me around until I was facing him. One long finger wiped away my tears.
“I’m sorry, I’m not usually such a watering pot.” It seemed like I was doing an awful lot of apologizing lately, too.
He leaned his head down and kissed me very gently. “If it means that much to you, I’ll ride to Windsor with you.”
I looked into those green eyes, those deep, mysterious green eyes that seemed to hold all of the wonder and joy of the world locked within them, just waiting for me to discover them. A little flicker of hope flared in my chest. “Do you mean that? Truly? You changed your mind?”
“You changed my mind,” he corrected me, and breathed another kiss on my lips. I moaned softly and swayed into him, relishing the feeling of his strong arms sliding around behind me, pulling me closer to him, closer to the source of all the fires he built up within me.
“Alex,” I murmured, and drank in his kiss. It was hot and sultry and held so much sweetness it almost brought me to my knees.
“Alex,” I said again, unable to catch my breath. “Do you want toâ€””
“Yes,” he said, pulling my hips forward to rub on his groin. He did want to. “But not now, not with so much unsettled between us.” He bent down and kissed away the objection I was about to make. “We’ll talk about it later, sweetheart.”
With a quick flick of his wrist he had my door unlocked and held opened for me. I walked past him, flipping on the flat lights, then stopped and turned back to face him. “Am I?”
One chestnut eyebrow rose a quarter inch. “Are you what?”
I held myself still while he gazed at me with those unfathomable eyes, then sighed my relief when he wrapped one hand in my hair and held me while he ravaged my mouth with a kiss that not only took my breath away, but melted my knees and puddled my insides. When he released me I was panting for air, while he smiled a smug smile of complete male satisfaction.
“Good night, Alix.”
“Holy cow!” I gasped, clinging to the door to keep from collapsing from the effect of that kiss.
His smile deepened in its smugness. I closed the door and slid to the floor, fanning myself and wondering what the hell I’d done.