'Cinderella, I presume?'
The voice was deep and mellow, jolting Tamsin out of her reverie. Warily she lowered the volume enough to peer over it.
She froze, eyes widening as she took in the man gazing up at her.
He'd stepped out of a fantasy.
He couldn't be real. No flesh and blood man looked like that. So mouth-wateringly wonderful.
Numb with shock, she shook her head in automatic disbelief. He could have been Prince Charming, standing there in his elaborate hussar's uniform, her discarded shoe in one large, capable hand. A bigger, tougher Prince Charming than she remembered from her childhood reading. His dark eyebrows slashed across a tanned face that wasn't so much handsome as magnetic, charismatic, potently sexy.
Like Prince Charming's far more experienced and infinitely more dangerous older brother.
Eyes, dark and gleaming, transfixed her. They were...aware.
Meeting his unblinking regard she had the crazy notion that for the first time ever a man looked and really saw her. Not her reputation, not her misfit status but the real flesh and blood Tamsin Connors, the impulsive woman she'd tried so hard to stifle.
She felt vulnerable, yet thrilled.
A lazy smile lifted one corner of his mouth and a deep groove creased his cheek.
Stunned, she felt a squiggle of response deep in her abdomen. Tiny rivers of fire quivered under her skin. Her lungs squeezed her breath out in a whoosh of...of...
The book she held shut with a snap that made her jump. Instantly the other volumes in her lap slid and she grabbed for them. But they were cumbersome and she didn't dare let go of the precious herbal in her hands.
In dry mouthed horror she watched a book tumble out of her grasp. It fell in slow motion, turning over as it went. Even knowing it was too late to save the volume she scrabbled for it, barely keeping her precarious perch.
'Don't move!' The authority in his voice stopped her in mid lunge.
He strode forward a step, stretched out his hand and the book fell into his grasp as if it belonged there.
Dizzy with relief, Tamsin shut her eyes. She'd never have forgiven herself if it had been damaged.
How had he done that? The volume was no paperback. It weighed a ton. Yet he'd caught it one-handed from a fall of twelve feet as if it were feather light.
Tamsin snapped her eyes open and saw him turn to place the book on the desk. The indigo material of his tunic clung to his broad shoulder and muscled arm.
That formidable figure wasn't the result of tailored padding.
She swallowed hard, her gaze dropping to long powerful thighs encased in dark trousers. The crimson stripe down the side drew attention to the strength of those limbs.
No pretend soldier. The straight set of his shoulders and the contained power of each precise movement proclaimed him the real thing.
Abruptly he turned, as if sensing her scrutiny. His gaze pierced her and she shivered, overwhelmingly aware of him as male.
She worked with men all the time, but she'd never met one so undeniably masculine. As if testosterone radiated off him in waves. It made her heart race.
'Now to get you safely down.' Was that a glint of humour in his eyes?
'I'm OK.' She clutched the books like a lifeline. 'I'll put these back and-'
'No.' The single syllable stopped her. 'I'll take them.'
'I promise you I'm not usually so clumsy.' She sat straighter, annoyed at her stupidity in examining the books here instead of taking them to the desk. Normally she was methodical, logical and careful. It was no excuse that excitement had overridden her caution.
'Nevertheless, it's not worth the risk.' He walked to the foot of the ladder and looked up, his face unreadable. 'I'll relieve you of your burden first.'
Tamsin bit her lip. She couldn't blame him. She'd almost damaged a unique volume. What sort of expert took such risks? What she'd done was unforgivable.
'I'm sorry, I-'
Her words cut out as the ladder moved beneath her, a rhythmic sway as he nimbly closed the distance between them.
Tamsin became excruciatingly self aware as his ascent slowed. Warm breath feathered her bare ankle then shivered against her calf and to her horror she couldn't repress a delicious little shudder.
A moment later a dark head appeared in the V between her splayed knees. Something hard and hot plunged down through her abdomen as she met his gaze.
From metres away this man was stunning. Up close, where she could see the twinkle lurking in midnight blue eyes and the sensuous curve of his full lower lip, he stole her breath. Tiny lines beside his mouth and eyes spoke of experience and a grim endurance at odds with his easy humour. Yet they only accentuated his attractiveness.
Her heart beat a rapid tattoo that pulsed adrenaline through her body and robbed her of coherent thought.
'Allow me.' Large hands reached out and scooped the book from her lap, barely ruffling her skirt. Yet his heat seared through her clothing and suddenly she felt dizzy. She clutched the herbal to her breast.
Then he was gone, swarming down the ladder with an ease that spoke of supreme fitness and agility.
Tamsin drew a deep breath into constricted lungs, searching for composure. She'd never been distracted by male beauty before. She dismissed as irrelevant the knowledge that she'd never seen anyone so magnificent.
She shook her head. He's just a man, just-
'This one too.' There he was again. She'd been so caught up in her thoughts she hadn't noticed his rapid ascent. He reached for the book in her arms.
'It's all right. I can carry it.' For suddenly, close enough to inhale his subtle spice and forest and man scent, she didn't want to relinquish the barrier between them. She clung to it like a talisman.
'We don't want to risk another accident,' he drawled in his easy, perfect English. 'Do we, Cinderella?'
'I'm not...' She stopped herself. Despite his mock serious expression there was amusement in his eyes.
Anger welled. Self-consciousness tightened her stomach. Had Patrick laughed at her too? All her life she'd been a misfit, a figure of speculation and amusement. She'd learned to pretend not to notice but still it hurt.
Yet this was her fault. She'd put herself in this ridiculous position because she'd been too curious to sit meekly waiting. She'd never be taken seriously now. Just when it was vital she win confidence and trust.
Had she single-handedly wrecked her chance of success?
Summoning the scraps of her dignity she unclamped stiff fingers and lowered the volume into his waiting hands.
Callused fingers brushed hers through the thin gloves she'd donned to protect the books. An electric shock shot up her arm and across her breasts. She jerked her hands away.
Tamsin bit the inside of her cheek and looked away from his knowing gaze, her emotions too raw for comfort.
He stood still. She felt his stare, tangible as a trailing touch, move across her face to her throat then back up again. Her breathing shallowed.
She told herself she was used to being a curiosity, out of step with her peers. Stubbornly she ignored the hurt lancing her chest.
An instant later he clattered back down the ladder and she let out her breath in a sigh.
Time to climb down and face the music. She unfolded the leg tucked beneath her. Pins and needles prickled, proof she'd sat here longer than she'd realised. Gingerly she wriggled, pulling the bunched hem of her skirt down where it had rucked up. Grasping the ladder she rose, ready to turn.
His appearance before her prevented her moving.
'I need space to turn around.' Her voice was betrayingly uneven.
Instead of descending, he rose, his hands grasping the top of the ladder so his broad shoulders and powerful arms surrounded her.
Something fluttered in Tamsin's chest at the sensation of being caught within his embrace, though he didn't touch her. The force field of his presence engulfed her. It made her feel small and vulnerable and edgy.
Her breath hissed in.
His head was at breast height now. She leaned back towards the shelving, trying to put space between them.
'Whoa. Easy now.' His deep voice lowered to a soothing pitch, as if steadying a fractious animal.
'I can climb down alone.' Her words were sharper than she'd intended, betraying her embarrassment at the storm of inexplicable reactions bombarding her.
'Of course you can.' His lips pursed ruminatively, drawing her eyes. Heat washed her neck and cheeks as she stared. In a less rugged face that perfect mouth would look almost feminine. But on him those lips simply looked sensuous and dangerously inviting.
Like the deeply hooded eyes that steadily surveyed her.
Tamsin swallowed and felt her blush burn hotter. Could he read her thoughts? He must be accustomed to women gaping. The realisation didn't ease her embarrassment.
'But accidents happen and I wouldn't want you losing your footing.'
'I won't lose my footing,' she said in a horribly breathless voice.
He shrugged those wide, straight shoulders, mesmerising her with the movement. 'We hope not. But we won't take chances. Think of the insurance claim if you're injured.'
'Of course you wouldn't.' He rose further and she backed so her shoulders touched the bookshelf and there was nowhere else to go. 'But your permanent employer might sue for damages if you're injured due to our negligence.'
'It's not your negligence. I climbed up here.'
He shook his head. 'Anyone with an ounce of understanding would realise what temptation this ladder is to a woman who loves books. It's asking for trouble.'
Something flickered in his eyes. She was sure he was laughing but his sympathetic expression couldn't be faulted. 'It was irresponsible to leave it here, just begging to be climbed.'
He conveniently ignored the fact that the ladder was fixed top and bottom to the rails placed around the walls.
'You're talking nonsense.'
His eyebrows arched and a flash of something that might have been approval lit his eyes.
'Very probably,' he murmured. 'The tension must be getting to me. Heights can affect people like that, you know.' His lips curved up in another one of those half smiles that melted something vital inside her.Â 'Take pity on my nerves and let me get you down from here.'
Tamsin opened her mouth to end his games. She refused to be the butt of his jokes. But before she could speak large hands pulled her towards him, warming her through several layers of clothing and jamming the words in her throat. For a moment panic threatened as she plunged forward, but an instant later she was draped over one solid shoulder. He clamped her close with his arm and then he was moving, descending the ladder with her firmly in his hold.
'Put me down! Let me go, right now!' She couldn't believe he'd grabbed her.
'Of course. In just a moment.'
To her horror Tamsin felt his deep voice rumble through his torso and hers.
Tamsin shut her eyes rather than look at the distant floor, or, more disturbingly, the intriguing sight of muscles bunching in the taut backside inches from her face.
But closing her eyes heightened other senses. She felt him against the length of her body, his strength undeniably exciting as ripples of movement teased her breasts and thighs. Disturbing warmth swirled languidly in the pit of her stomach.
She shouldn't be enjoying this. She should be outraged. Or at least impervious. She should...
'There.' He lowered her into a chair and stepped back. 'Safe and sound.'
His eyes weren't laughing now. They were sober as he stared down at her. His mouth was a firm line, his brows tipped into a slight frown as if the joke had turned sour. His jaw clamped hard and she had the fleeting impression he was annoyed rather than amused.
Tamsin wanted desperately to conjure a witty quip. To redeem herself as clever and insouciant, taking the situation in her stride.
Instead she gazed helplessly, enmeshed in a web of unfamiliar reactions. Her breasts tingled from contact with him, her nipples puckering shamelessly. Her thighs were warm from his touch. Her gaze caught on his black hair, now slightly rumpled. Heat sizzled inside like a firecracker about to explode.
It wasn't the sexy cavalry uniform that made him look so good, despite the gilt braiding that moulded his tapering torso, the cut of clothes that made him look every inch the fairy tale hero. What unnerved her was the flesh and blood man whose shadowed eyes glowed like an invitation to sin.
She tried to tell herself he was vain enough to have a uniform designed to enhance the incredible colour of his eyes. But the gravity of his expression when he wasn't smiling told her he didn't give a toss for his looks.
Tamsin's breath sawed as he dropped to one knee and took her bare foot in his hand. Tremors rippled up her leg and she felt again that strange molten sensation pooling low in her belly.
She squirmed but he didn't release her. Instead he fished something out of his pocket and slid it onto her foot. Soft, worn familiar leather. Her discarded shoe.
'So, Cinderella. Why did you want to see me?'Reviews Behind the Book Return