Flurries of snow whirled down from a leaden sky. I glanced up as I trekked across the car park, my sexy shoes doing nothing to protect my feet from the frigid carpet of white snow that was already blanketing the grimy concrete; then I shivered. It was freezing out here and it wasn't even five o'clock yet. If the weather carried on in this vein, the traffic was going to be horrendous.
Ordinarily, I would have been looking forward to a quiet evening in, but tonight I had the prospect of a long drive to some anonymous hotel down south. The thought of three days listening to some mindless dirge about management crap hardly filled me with joy and if I could have gotten out of it, I would have. But my boss had purposefully pulled me to one side the previous week and let me know in no uncertain terms that he wanted me on the course.
"Who else is going?" I'd asked with an expression I hoped resembled enthusiasm.
"Tom Jameson," he said.
At least Tom was reasonable company, I thought miserably, even if he did insist on talking about football most of the time.
"Oh yes, and Kyle is also going," he added with a smile.
My face froze. Now that was hardly a good turn of events. Kyle was an arrogant bastard and I couldn't stand him. Every time we had to work together, we clashed. I wasn't sure why he wound me up so much, he just did. Some days he only had to glance at me with that look he had perfected, the one that said he knew women found him irresistible. It was enough to make me want to empty a mug of coffee all over his perfectly groomed head.
Which I had done one memorable meeting...
"Wow, that's great," I replied, sounding less than happy even to my own ears.
"You know, Louise," my boss commented, "It's about time you and Kyle buried the hatchet. Perhaps you can sort things out before you return to the office next week?" He fixed me with a level stare and I had the distinct impression it was a warning as opposed to a polite suggestion.
"Absolutely." I smiled with enough wattage to drain the national grid.
Over my dead body, I thought grimly once he'd left me alone. I'd rather chew my own leg off!
By the time I reached my car and spent five minutes trying to locate my key from amongst the miscellaneous crap inside my bag, the snow was falling thick and fast. I fell into the driver's seat trying not to think about the state of my lovely cream suede shoes I had spent a bloody fortune on, less than a week ago. Thrusting the key into the ignition, I waited for the engine to fire up and the heat to begin blasting out of the vents.
But nothing happened other than an ominous grating noise, followed by a deathly silence.
Now I was stuck here, unable to move, and I hadn't renewed my RAC membership last month.
Crap. Crap. CRAP!
I was just contemplating having a nervous breakdown when a tapping on my window attracted my attention and I looked up with irritation. To add insult to injury, it was bloody Kyle standing there in his Paul Smith suit, looking like he just stepped off the front cover of Maxim magazine.
"Having car trouble?" he asked sweetly when I grudgingly opened the door.
"No, not at all, I was just meditating before the long drive," I snapped.
Praying my car miraculously revived, I tried turning the key again, but once again there was just a horrible grating sound.
"Sounds terminal to me," he commented helpfully. "You better not stay here any longer—you look like you're feeling the cold."
I looked up to see him staring at my chest. With a flush of embarrassment I realised that my coat had fallen open and my nipples were pressing prominently against the thin silk of my blouse.
"So do you," I retaliated, looking meaningfully at his crotch. Two could play at that game.
Still, he had a point. It was obvious I wasn't going to achieve anything sitting here in the snow. I needed to go and sort a taxi out. If I caught a train, I would be in Cheltenham before midnight, all being well. Thankfully the bloody hotel was 5* and I could sooth my temper with some beauty treatments charged to my expense account. It was the least my Boss could do to compensate me for the stress of spending three days with Kyle Dexter.
"Where are you going?" he asked in surprise when I shoved him out of the way using my laptop bag.
"To the station," I said.
"Louise, don't be daft, we can travel down together."
"I'd rather share a car with Hannibal Lector," I muttered right before I slipped on some black ice.
"Careful, it's icy!" A strong arm grabbed me and I caught a tempting whiff of aftershave. "Anyway, you're coming with me and I won't take no for an answer," Kyle growled with a steely edge to his usually smooth voice.
I couldn't help but wonder how many times he'd said that before some bimbo dropped her knickers and swooned with orgasmic delight.
"Mr Robinson would not be very amused if you missed the beginning of the course due to public transport malfunctions."
He was right, of course. I was cutting my nose off to spite my face. Spending three hours in Kyle's luxurious BMW as opposed to five hours on a crowded, smelly train? It was a no-brainer really.
"Ok, I suppose I could travel down with you," I grumbled less than graciously. "But really, you can let go of my arm now." I felt certain that the heat of his fingers had already left a permanent impression on my skin.
"Great!" he grinned, releasing me rather reluctantly. "I'm sure we can find something interesting to talk about on the way there."
I doubted that, but I couldn't be bothered to argue any more. My feet were wet and I was still pissed off about my car. So I stood silently as he manfully grabbed my bags—then smirked when he almost slipped on the same patch of ice that had caught me out.
"Careful," I said sweetly, "It's icy!"
Despite my antipathy towards Kyle, it wasn't long before I felt my irritation recede in the face of such a luxurious mode of transport. The knowledge that he had saved me from the fate worse than death that was commonly known as British Rail cuisine, somewhat softened my prickly attitude towards him. Maybe he wasn't so bad after all. Maybe I had misjudged him?
"By the way," he said, interrupting my train of thought, "I had a note from one of the administrators just as I was leaving. It said the hotel's been overbooked, so we might have to share a room for tonight."
I nearly shot out of my seat in horror. "What?!"
"Don't worry, I rang them straight away and told them that as compensation we expected the best suite they had. You know, seeing as how we're newly weds."
It took me a few very long seconds to realise that he was joking. "You arsehole."
He laughed as he manoeuvred the car down the slip road on to the M6. The snow grew ever thicker and I silently thanked God for the precision of German engineering. If I had been in my car, I would have been sliding all over the place by now. Kyle's car barely noticed the slippery slush beneath its tyres.
"It's getting worse," he commented after a few more miles during which the flow of traffic grew ever slower.
"No, really?" My sarcasm was apparently lost on him for he added,
"Yeah, looks like we might get there rather late."
I stared out of the window and ignored him.
"I bet Tom's counting his blessings he had to cancel."
"He's not coming?" That wasn't exactly great news. I had been counting on Tom to act as referee for the next three days.
"No, his wife went into labour this afternoon."
"Oh no, poor Lucy." I knew she wasn't due for another month, so I hoped everything was ok.
I suddenly felt rather ashamed of my silly tantrums. What exactly did I have to complain about when I was toddling off to a swanky hotel while other people were dealing with all kinds of crap? I mulled over that for a while before deciding to ignore all of Kyle's most obvious faults and make an effort to be pleasant to him for the duration of our course.
It was the adult thing to do after all.
"So, how's your girlfriend these days?" I asked by way of polite conversation.
"She walked out about four months ago."
It was kind of a conversation stopper really. "Oh, I'm sorry," I said honestly. It wasn't a nice thing to happen to anyone, even though I imagined he had probably deserved it. Poor woman had probably put up with hell.
"Thanks," he replied in a subdued voice. "I was rather gutted at the time."
I glanced sideways at him, slightly surprised at the sudden display of feelings. The Kyle I knew (and hated) was all swagger and testosterone, not a man who was exactly in touch with his emotional side. "What happened?" I couldn't help but ask curiously.
He shrugged as we slowed down to a crawl behind what looked like miles of stationery traffic.
"We wanted different things, I guess. I was ready to settle down, but she was utterly against kids and stuff. I hoped she would change her mind when she fell pregnant, but no, it wasn't what she wanted. So she went away and killed what we had left. By the time I caught up with her, it was too late."
"Shit, that's awful." I could barely get my head around what he was telling me. I was suddenly forced to reassess everything I thought I knew about him and it was most unsettling.
He shrugged. "Things happen for a reason."
"Maybe," I conceded. Frankly I thought that was bullshit, but I didn't want to pick yet another fight with him. "Not sure if my car breaking down comes under that heading, though. I reckon that was down to rubbish French automotive technology, rather than fate."
He was smiling when I turned towards him again and I felt a shiver run through me that had nothing to do with the ambient temperature in the car.
"Maybe," he said, fixing me with a long stare before we both jumped as the traffic bulletin interrupted the music channel.
"...six miles of grid-locked traffic...major disruption due to unprecedented levels of snow falling across most parts of the UK..."
And so it went on and on and on.
"I hope you've got some blankets in the boot," I grumbled. "At this rate we'll be stuck on this bloody motorway all night!"
"Bollocks to that," Kyle replied. "We're only a mile from the next exit, so I'm getting off this road to Hell." With a sharp turn left, he cut past all the traffic and drove down the hard shoulder, the heavy car making deep tracks through the drifting snow. When I looked behind us, I saw that several other drivers had decided to follow.
We headed up the slip road and reached a large junction. "Left or right?" he asked.
"No idea—I don't know the area."
"Okay, left it is. There must be a hotel or something around here."
"Yeah, hotel. There's no point in trying to make Cheltenham tonight. We'll end up stuck somewhere and I have no intention of freezing my arse off in the car all night, even if the present company would go a long way towards keeping me warm."
The idea of sleeping in his car didn't appeal to me either—I preferred at least a few locked doors between us and the close proximity of our current arrangement was not conducive to a restful night. I also decided to ignore the reference to me keeping him warm. I'd sooner sleep with Frosty the bloody Snowman before keeping any parts of his anatomy toasty, despite his startling revelations earlier. A leopard doesn't change its spots that easily, I thought.
The roads were almost deserted as we headed towards the nearest large town. Everything glittered white as huge fat flakes continued to fall. It was hard to differentiate where exactly the road was, but Kyle steered the car with precision accuracy, managing to avoid any collisions with stationery objects. If it weren't so dangerous, it would have been picture postcard perfect. I almost wished I were a kid again so that I could look forward to a day of sledging tomorrow. Sadly I was thirty-two, not twelve, and therefore a bit old for that.
"Isn't it lovely?" Kyle commented, reading my mind.
"Yeah." I smiled to myself, remembering all the times I had been shoved down 1:3 hills by my brothers.
"Reminds me of when I was a kid and we used to go sledging in the peak district when it snowed."
I laughed. "Me too! I was always the one who fell off half way down the hill."
"I bet you still looked cute though," he said.
Normally I would have taken his comment as the usual flirting designed to distract me from the real agenda of work, but this time I wasn't so sure. It wasn't as if we were competing in the office now and this was new territory to me. I had always avoided any social interaction with him in the past, both because he annoyed me, and because I preferred my life outside work to stay private.
So I chose to ignore the compliment. "Ooh look, there's a hotel."
A large sign, half obscured by snow, stood by the side of the road. Dovecote Manor County House Hotel sounded half decent judging by the multitude of little stars beneath the fancy scripted letters.
"That'll do." We drove down the sweeping drive bordered by tall elm trees, their branches groaning beneath the weight of snow in the distance. A few moments later, we could see the twinkling lights of a large building.
"I think it's rather posh." It resembled something out of a lavish BBC costume melodrama. Any moment now, Helena Bonham-Carter was going to appear in a horse drawn carriage.
Kyle grinned. "Just as well it's going on expenses, then."
Well, the weather is awful, I thought. I just prayed this place didn't turn out to be £600 a night, or something equally ridiculous.
Still, it was too late now. "I hope the food is good—I'm starving," I grumbled with great feeling. Dinner had been a digestive biscuit in between meetings several hours ago.
I melted in the heat from the huge fire blazing away nearby as we stood by the desk waiting for the receptionist to decide whether they were full.
She beamed happily. "You're very lucky—it looks like we have one room left!"
I blanched. She was smiling in a vaguely star-struck way at Kyle. "We're not usually this busy mid week, so I think we've gained a few unexpected customers after the pile-up on the motorway. It'll probably take hours to clear with all this snow."
"Are you sure you don't have another room available?" I asked. "We're not—"
"Don't worry, your virtue is safe with me," Kyle interrupted, patting my hand in a condescending way.
The receptionist stared at us in surprise; it was immediately apparent she had assumed we were a couple. By the way she glanced admiringly at Kyle again, before giving me an utterly bemused look, I intuited that she thought I was seriously deranged for not wanting to sleep with Kyle. It was blindingly obvious she did.
"Surely you must have something else?" I asked in desperation. "Even a twin room would be better than a...double."
I couldn't bring myself to say the word bed. It seemed too graphic somehow.
"No, I'm really sorry, Madame, but there is nothing else left." She did in fact seem genuinely apologetic. Or maybe that was because she was hoping I'd piss off and she could take my place.
"You could always try somewhere else? The might be rooms in the motel at Monkton..."
"No, forget it," Kyle said firmly before I could say another word. "I'm not driving anywhere else tonight. I'm shagged."
He smiled at me innocently and I glared back at him.
"Then I'll suppose it'll have to do," I muttered crossly. I grabbed the key-card from the girl's hand and flounced off, leaving Kyle with our bags. Just because I was stuck sharing a room with him, it didn't mean I had to pretend to like it. If there was a hard, lumpy sofa in the corner of our room, he could bloody sleep on that tonight.
The room was small, but very opulent. Unfortunately, there was nothing in it that Kyle could sleep on other than a thick rug beneath the tall, sash window. Still, it was a possibility, I mused. It depended on how much he annoyed me before we settled down for the night.
Aware that he would not be too far behind me, I dived into the bathroom and locked the door. I needed some time to collect my thoughts without him distracting me. If he wanted a shower, he could wait. It wouldn't kill him. There was bound to be a bar downstairs where he could pull some brain-dead Barbie. Better still, she might have a spare space in her bed and I could have a restful night on my own.
"Louise? Are you in there?"
I heard a knocking on the door, but I ignored it while I concentrated on filling the huge, claw footed bath with scented potions. I was still furious at him for refusing to look elsewhere for a hotel that could offer us separate bedrooms, even though I knew that he had been right—the weather really was too bad to contemplate driving any further tonight.
"Ok, you're mad with me. Well that's fine, you have a nice bath. When you feel human again, we can get something to eat. Want to hear what's on the menu?"
At the mention of food, my stomach began to growl furiously. The bastard. He was doing it deliberately! My imagination conjured up all kinds of tempting dishes that might be on the menu. Just the thought of a lovely, rare steak, was making me drool.
"No, I'm not hungry," I yelled. I stripped of my clothes and climbed in the scalding water.
"Liar!" I could hear his laughter echoing through the door.
When my skin began to wrinkle like a prune and I was in danger of falling asleep, I finally emerged from the cooling water. It was only then that I realised I had no clean clothes to put on. I didn't even have a complimentary bathrobe to wear as they were still hanging in the wardrobe—on the other side of the bathroom door.
It seemed like I had no choice but to wrap myself up in one of the fluffy towels and brave Kyle. I had no doubt that he would find it highly amusing to see me half naked. Still, if I had my way, it would be the only chance he got.
"I thought you'd drowned in there," he commented irritably when I walked back into our room. He was lying on the bed with a bored expression while the television waffled on in the background. His eyes widened slightly when he saw my attire, and he smiled appreciatively. I ignored him and proceeded to open my small case.
"You should have asked," he said helpfully, "And I would have brought one of the robes in for you."
Yes, like I was going to allow you in the bathroom while I was naked, I thought. Was he living in a parallel universe?
"You're too kind."
"Always," he replied with a predatory smile. Then before I could say another word, he had dived into the bathroom and turned the shower on.
At least it left me in peace to decide what I was going to wear. Not that it mattered really. It was already fairly late and we would probably be lucky to get a snack from the bar. Besides, I wasn't trying to impress Kyle. So with that in mind, I threw on some jeans and a blouse: casual, but not too scruffy. It wasn't the Holiday Inn, after all.
I was brushing my hair when he emerged with all the swagger of a man who knows he's God's gift to the female population. Humming a tune, he strode across the room with a towel around his waist so small I could have sworn it was one of the face flannels. Despite my disgust at his blatant peacock display, my eyes were inevitably drawn to his fine physique.
There was a man who put some serious hours in at the gym. He wasn't overly muscular, which I hated, but every muscle he had was beautifully defined. Broad shoulders and narrow hips, together with strong thighs, combined to make the most perfect specimen of manhood I had seen in a long time. What a pity I hated him.
My hairbrush fell to the floor one tenth of a nanosecond after Kyle's towel dropped from his waist, leaving his gloriously naked backside reflected in the mirror. I was hypnotised. As much as I wanted to look away, I couldn't. It was pure torture on my good intentions. Fully aware that I was watching him, Kyle slowly and deliberately turned around so that I was granted a full frontal shot. Inevitably, my eyes slid from his chest until I was staring right at the part of his anatomy he was obviously—and justifiably I might add—proud of.