Undone by His Touch
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Declan’s head shot round, following the sound of Chloe’s voice as she moved closer.
‘What did you say?’
‘You’re scared of someone else seeing you vulnerable.’
She stopped before him. Her voice was low and close. Her light scent swirled around him.
Furious as much at his awareness of her as at her words, he lifted a hand to grab her, then stopped at the last moment. Remembering what had happened the last time he’d touched her. How compelling the need had been to take more. To take her, with all the pent-up desperation of a blind man groping for the light. He’d never before been so needy. Or so bereft.
Fire scorched his skin—fury and guilt. And desire.
About the Author
ANNIE WEST spent her childhood with her nose between the covers of a book—a habit she retains. After years preparing government reports and official correspondence she decided to write something she really enjoys. And there’s nothing she loves more than a great romance. Despite her office-bound past she has managed a few interesting moments—including a marriage offer with the promise of a herd of camels to sweeten the contract. She is happily married to her ever-patient husband (who has never owned a dromedary). They live with their two children amongst the tall eucalypts at beautiful Lake Macquarie, on Australia’s east coast. You can e-mail Annie at www.annie-west.com, or write to her at PO Box 1041, Warners Bay, NSW 2282, Australia.
Recent titles by the same author:
GIRL IN THE BEDOUIN TENT
PRINCE OF SCANDAL PASSION, PURITY AND THE PRINCE SCANDAL: HIS MAJESTY’S LOVE-CHILD
Did you know these are also available as eBooks? Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk
by His Touch
To two inspirational women,
Miranda Lee and Emma Darcy, with thanks.
‘YOU can’t save us!’ The hoarse cry echoed in Declan’s ears and he tore his gaze back to Adrian, dangling below him on the rope. ‘It’s going to give way!’
They were suspended a hundred metres above an isolated canyon. The wind was rising and his brother’s nerves were shot. Already Adrian’s panic had dislodged one of the pitons securing them to the cliff.
‘Hang on,’ Declan gasped. His lungs hammered from his last attempt to haul them up.
Craning his neck, he looked up to where they’d fallen. A cascade of crumbling rock splattered his face. His throat shredded raw with each breath.
If only he’d called Adrian’s bluff when he’d threatened to climb solo. But Adrian had seemed so brittle, Declan hadn’t pushed. He’d hoped to regain their closeness and persuade Adrian to open up while they climbed.
Now their survival hung in the balance.
‘Steady, Ade.It’ll be OK.’
‘OK?’ Adrian’s voice rose. ‘Don’t lie, Declan.’
Declan shot him a reassuring look. ‘I almost made it last time. Third time’s the charm. You’ll see.’
Setting his jaw, he grabbed the rope and hauled, blocking out screaming pain as the rope lacerated hands already raw. His shoulders and neck locked in agony as he took their combined weight. It felt as if his spine might snap or his shoulders dislocate from the strain.
‘You’ll never do it. It’s impossible.’
The words washed over him. He had no wind for speech.
‘You know, it’s not so bad.’ Minutes later Adrian spoke again, his voice barely audible over the thundering of Declan’s blood. ‘A fall will be quick, at least.’
‘Won’t …’ Declan fought to dredge up words in a throat scoured dry ‘… fall.’
‘I’ve thought about it. One turn of the wheel in front of an oncoming truck and it’d all be over.’
The words slurred, warped by the frantic throb of Declan’s pulse and the searing pain in his hands. Sweat blurred his vision.
‘It’s not like there’s anything to live for.’ Adrian’s voice was so soft Declan wasn’t sure if he imagined it. Could pain make you hallucinate?
‘I’ve lost her. She wants someone rich and successful like you, not a failure. She dumped me!’
‘Dumped?’ Declan’s voice was a husk of sound.
He needed to stop before his arms wrenched from their sockets. The world narrowed to the line that wore his hands to the bone, the wrenching strain and the eddying sound of Adrian’s voice. A shiver of anxiety snaked through him at his brother’s tone, but he was too exhausted to respond.
The wind picked up, swaying them.
The salt tang of blood burst on his lip. Two metres …
‘I can’t go on. I’ve tried, but she’s the only woman I ever loved and she betrayed me. This is for the best.’
Best? The rope jerked unevenly. Despite the sweat streaming over Declan’s sun-baked body, an icy finger slicked the back of his neck.
Readjusting frozen neck muscles, he managed to look down. Familiar grey eyes met his. This time they held no panic, only an odd calm that made Declan’s heart plunge.
‘This way one of us might survive. I can’t go on without her.’
Declan gasped in horror as he looked lower to where Adrian sawed at the line that bound them.
Suddenly the dragging weight on his shoulders disappeared. There was no scream, no sound. It seemed a lifetime before Declan heard the muffled crunch of branches below and lost sight of his brother.
THE stack of towels was thick and soft in Chloe’s arms as she nudged open the laundry door and headed for the pool house.
She dipped her head and inhaled the scent of sunshine and lavender: one of the special touches she prided herself on when the weather was good enough to use the drying hedge rather than the industrial-sized drier.
Concentrating on such small things, resuming her routine, had seen her through this difficult first morning back at Carinya.
She refused to let memories spook her. Her job was too precious and she needed the financial security more than ever. Besides, she had nothing to fear now.
So she’d ignored the anxiety feathering down her spine when she’d entered her housekeeper’s quarters and remembered the last morning she’d been here. And again as she’d started work and imagined a dark-haired presence watching from the shadows as he had so often watched before.
That was in the past. He’d gone for ever. That knowledge helped banish the shadows.
Turning the corner of the house she slowed, hearing the sound of someone in the pool.
The sight of a familiar dark head emerging from the water with each stroke slammed her heart against her ribs. She faltered to a stop, not believing her eyes.
But he’s gone!
This was impossible!
Transfixed, Chloe watched him execute a perfect racing turn, coming up metres from the end of the pool. The strenuous butterfly stroke, one she’d never been able to master, looked easy as that long body cleaved the water. The scoop of out-thrust arms accentuated the impressive length of tanned limbs and the power in his shoulders.
Chloe sagged against the wall, her throat tight, heart pounding as she tried to make sense of what she saw.
But he’s dead … Dead. The words ran, a bewildered mantra, through her brain.
Yet for one lap of the pool Chloe was caught in nightmare, transfixed by the return of the man she’d come to fear.
Another turn and this time he swam freestyle, powering down the metres as if he had a record to break.
It was only then that her stunned eyes saw beyond the shreds of memory and noticed anomalies. This man looked bigger, though it was difficult to tell in the water. He swam differently, as if propelled by an unseen force that supercharged him through the crystal depths. He was like an efficient machine, each stroke smooth and economical, yet with a raw strength that seemed almost brutal.
Chloe couldn’t imagine this man doing a lazy lap or two then loafing away an afternoon at the pool-side with a tray of drinks and his mobile phone.
Even now, turning again and beginning another lap, his speed didn’t diminish.
Driven: that was the word that came to mind.
The man she remembered had been many things but driven wasn’t one of them. At least, not until he’d turned his attention to her.
Chloe clanged that door shut in her mind. She refused to go there.
The swimmer reached the far end of the pool and in one supple movement heaved himself out. Water streamed down, bright sunlight burnished bronzed, water-slicked skin, from the bunch of muscles in his arms and back to the tight curve of bare buttocks.
Chloe sucked in her breath, her dazed brain registering his nakedness at the same time it assured her this couldn’t be him. The shape of the head was different. The height. The breadth. His sheer imposing maleness.
He half-turned and she averted her eyes, but not before she saw a long scar ripping down one powerful thigh.
Relief, the return to normality after those frozen moments of disbelief, made her light-headed. Sanity returned with a rush of embarrassment as she realised who she’d been staring at.
Hurriedly, she straightened away from the wall and stepped out briskly towards the pool house.
‘Who’s that?’ The deep voice was sharp but he didn’t turn around, merely reached for his towel on a nearby sun lounger. He wrapped it casually round his hips with all the nonchalance of a man supremely confident in his own nakedness. And the fact he owned the whole multi-million-dollar estate.
Reluctantly Chloe detoured towards the clematis-draped pergola where he stood, putting on sunglasses.
It wasn’t the way she’d have chosen to meet her employer at last.
Housekeepers were supposed to be discreet, unobtrusive, not intruding on their boss’s privacy.
The image of firmly toned masculine flesh flashed before her eyes and a tingle of unfamiliar heat stirred.
She faltered, taking a moment to identify the sensation she hadn’t experienced in years. When she did, shock brought a gasp to her lips.
‘I’m waiting.’ The words weren’t curt, but his languid tone barely concealed impatience.
Chloe stepped forward. Now was not the time to dwell on the fact she’d just felt a spark of arousal for the first time in six years. At the sight of her naked employer.
‘It’s your housekeeper, Chloe Daniels.’ She waited for him to turn. When he finally did she hefted the towels higher on one arm and extended her right hand. Tried to banish the memory of how she’d stood, gawping like some sex-starved miss at the sight of him.
Sex-starved she might technically be but she was no simpering miss.
He stood four-square before her, wearing nothing but reflective sunglasses and a towel. He exuded an air of authority that befitted a man of his commercial stature.
Right now it was his physical stature that pole-axed her.
Chloe had to tilt her head to meet his eyes. Despite her self-discipline and the compelling need not to ogle her employer, it took far too much effort to keep her gaze from that broad chest and ridged abdomen.
Standing this close, she realised Declan Carstairs was bigger, tougher, more imposing than the man she’d known. Only the hair colour and loose-limbed grace were the same—family traits.
His jaw was shadowed, not with sculpted designer stubble, but with several days’ growth that made him look more like a lumberjack or pirate than a corporate tycoon.
A sensation like swirling treacle low in her belly unnerved her. She had a sudden mental picture of him swinging across a tall-masted ship, a woman on his shoulder.
Maybe it was the scar that conjured the notion. Long and not yet silvered with age, it carved an uncompromising groove up one cheek, curling in towards his eye.
Chloe shivered as she thought of the long matching wound on his leg.
‘We haven’t met before,’ she said in the efficient housekeeper’s voice she’d perfected over the years. She was grateful for it now as her pulse hammered. ‘I’ve been—’
‘Away.’ He paused, watching her, yet giving no answering smile. His forehead pleated in a frown and his dark eyebrows slashed down as if in disapproval.
By now she felt gauche with her arm extended towards him. When it became clear he wouldn’t give her the courtesy of a handshake, she dropped her arm, disappointment adding to her discomfort. Maybe arrogance ran in his family.
‘A family emergency, wasn’t it?’ he surprised her by asking.
She hadn’t expected him to know that, especially since they’d never met. His personal assistant had hired her, explaining his boss was often away for months at a time. Carinya had been his family’s spectacular Blue Mountains retreat for generations but he lived a couple of hours east in Sydney when he wasn’t travelling.
‘That’s right, Mr Carstairs. A family issue.’
Not that she’d known that the morning she’d fled this house. She’d simply packed her bags and caught the first train out. It was only later she’d discovered that in a weird coincidence of fate she faced not one but two crises. At least one of them was over.
‘But we can count on your continued presence now?’ One eyebrow arched above sleek designer glasses.
‘Of course.’ She’d been grateful when her sudden request for leave had been granted, but now she felt a spark of resentment at his attitude. ‘I moved back in a couple of hours ago. I’ll be on hand whenever you need me.’ She forced herself to smile up into his stern face.
If she’d expected a glimmer of friendliness she was disappointed.
The way he stood, staring, no answering smile or nod, should have unnerved her. But Chloe was used to standing up for herself, proving herself again and again. Her self-confidence had been forged in a hard school.
She met his gaze squarely, trying to read his face.
Most people gave non-verbal clues to their thoughts. Not Declan Carstairs. Maybe that was how he’d taken his inherited fortune and turned it into something astronomical—by playing his cards close to his chest.
Yet this was something more. Was that disapproval she read in his set jaw and tense mouth? Anger, even?
Her skin tightened as she recalled standing frozen, eyes glued to his naked form, well after she’d realised who he was. There’d been a distinct element of appreciation as her gaze had slid over his virile form.
Had he caught her staring? Heat washed her throat and cheeks.
‘I’m sorry for interrupting you just now. I hadn’t realised you were here in the pool.’
Or that you were naked.
‘Mr Sarkesian left a message saying you’d both be working in your study this morning and he’d brief me after that. I’d never intentionally …’
A dismissive gesture silenced her. ‘David had to leave on unexpected business.’ He paused and she had the impression of tension clamping his big frame rigid. ‘Was there anything else?’
‘No, nothing.’ She’d been waiting for him. ‘I’ll just take these to the pool house. Unless there’s anything I can get you?’
He shook his head. Chloe fought not to notice the way tiny droplets of water eased over his shoulders to track down across the solid musculature of his chest.
Her mouth dried and the heat in her face notched up to scorching.
She was doing it again!
She didn’t ogle attractive men. Yet the sight of her boss’s half-naked body and don’t-mess-with-me jaw conjured feelings Chloe had all but forgotten. How could it be?
Even the dreadful scar seemed to accentuate the earthy sexuality and power of his strong-boned face.
Inwardly she cringed, hoping he was oblivious to her thoughts tumbling out of control.
That black eyebrow climbed again. ‘Well. What are you waiting for, Ms Daniels? Don’t let me keep you from work.’
That was what he paid her for. She had no trouble reading his dismissive tone.
‘Of course, Mr Carstairs.’ Chloe tamped down annoyance and embarrassment as she turned away. She kept her pace even and her shoulders back, projecting a calm she was far from feeling.
Yet she reeled in shock. First had been the horror of thinking the man who haunted her nightmares had returned. Then there’d been that rush of relief, so strong she’d trembled with it. And finally the punch-to-the-gut reaction to Declan Carstairs.
Despite the scarring, he had the body of a male pin-up. More than that his sheer, sizzling intensity resonated like a force field, sucking the air from her lungs.
She was horrified to register a jiggle of response in that secret hollow place deep within. It had been years since she’d felt sexual awareness. On the contrary, she’d been accused of chilling indifference, of being an ice princess.
The recollection twisted her lips. She’d promised herself never to dwell on that again.
Now to feel a spark of attraction for her boss? Impossible!
In twenty-seven years there’d only been Mark, just one man to make her feel the blaze of desire. It was unthinkable that Declan Carstairs, rich, ruthless and disapproving, should re-ignite such feelings.
Pursing her lips, Chloe set about stripping the pool house of used towels.
Halfway back to the house, the sound of shattering glass made her spin towards the pergola.
Declan Carstairs stood, frozen in tableau, one arm stretched towards the table. On the ground before him lay the splintered remnants of a glass.
Curiously it was his stillness that snared her gaze rather than the broken glass so dangerously close to the pool. Too late she caught herself staring at those broad, straight shoulders a little too avidly.
‘It’s all right, Mr Carstairs, don’t you bother with it. I’ll fetch a brush and pan.’ Chloe hurried back to the laundry, dumped the towels and scooped up her equipment.
Strangely, on her return he hadn’t moved, as if he was waiting to make sure she did the job properly.
She’d worked for wealthy people before, some demanding and others so relaxed they barely noticed what went on around them. None would have questioned her ability to do such a simple task. Yet his stillness and the furrow of concentration on his brow told her he had other ideas.
Chloe crouched before him, brushing up the shards.
‘I’ll just be a moment.’ Yet her usually brisk movements seemed slow, her limbs heavy as his silent presence loomed close. Deliberately she turned from the sight of those strong sinewed feet planted wide on the flagstones.
Ridiculous that even the man’s naked feet looked sexy. He disapproved of her, was checking on her. She didn’t want to feel anything for him.
‘Thank you, Ms Daniels.’
Chloe bit down on a bubble of laughter. Such formality when her mind buzzed with unsettling images of his bare body. Just as well he couldn’t read her thoughts.
If only he’d move and leave her to get on with this.
Thinning her lips, she concentrated on locating shards that had spread further than the rest. ‘I think that’s almost—No! Watch out!’
Too late she saw his heel come down on a splinter as he turned.
A single, low oath blasted from his lips as bright scarlet bloomed and spread across the flagstones.
‘Wait, there’s another one.’
Chloe scuttled across to pick up the shard. ‘There, that’s all. You can move to the chair now.’
Above her he stood still as a bronze god, though in the silence she heard the hiss of his indrawn breath. Blood streamed from the gash at his heel.
Finally he spoke. ‘Perhaps you’d help me, Ms Daniels.’
Frowning, she got to her feet, put the brush and pan aside and moved closer. What did he want her to do? Surely he had the strength to hop the short distance to the chair?
‘You want me to support you?’
Something like anger flashed across his face and his nostrils flared. ‘Nothing so dramatic.’ He spoke through gritted teeth. ‘Just give me your hand.’
Bewildered, Chloe complied, slipping her hand into his, absorbing the heat and sensation of hard strength surrounding her work-roughened fingers. She registered the ridges of scar tissue across his palm. A shiver of sensation skated up her arm and shoulder, raising the fine hairs on her nape.
She ignored it and looked into his face. This close she read the tiny lines bracketing his mouth as if he spent more time compressing his lips than smiling.
His features were stiff and the scar stood lividly on his taut cheek. Fierce energy hummed through him and into her, like a power source without a safety valve, inexorably rising. Tension twisted as she waited for him to speak.
Her eyes were at the level of his mouth and she watched, fascinated, as his sensuously sculpted lips thinned into a pained line.
‘You need to sit down so I can get the glass out. It won’t hurt so much then.’
His bark of laughter, rough and raw, echoed across the flagstones, jerking her gaze up to those impenetrable dark glasses.
‘The pain doesn’t bother me.’
Chloe frowned. If he wasn’t in pain, then what …?
He exhaled slowly through his nostrils, his fingers tightening around hers. When he spoke there was resignation as well as an undercurrent of anger in his words. ‘Just lead me to a chair, will you?’
‘Yes, damn it. Haven’t you realised you’re talking to a blind man?’
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