The knock at her office door made Imogen’s heart skitter. She’d been determined to keep fluttery, knee-weakening thoughts well under wraps during this consultation, but best intentions didn’t always happen—especially with this particular client.
“Come in,” she called, sitting back in her leather chair and setting her features into her most businesslike, professional expression.
Kane was important, yes, but so was she, and last time he’d visited he’d made her feel like a besotted little girl instead of an independent, successful woman in charge of a branch of Coutts bank. Today she’d keep her wits about her and not let herself fall into his hypnotizing dark eyes or be lured under the spell of his husky, sexy voice.
The door opened and Kane Ward stepped into the room. A shard of sunshine streamed across him and he paused for a moment as though allowing it to spotlight his arrival—it seemed even the stars adored him.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Ward,” Imogen said, dropping her gaze down his long, lean frame. She told herself she was taking in the exquisite cut of his suit and not wondering what lay beneath it—because that wouldn’t be appropriate, would it? Not with a client.
“I told you last time, please, call me Kane.” He strode out of the stream of light, across the room, then stopped on the other side of her desk.
Imogen rose and held out her hand. “Kane, good afternoon. I trust you have been well since we last met.”
“Very, thank you.” He took her hand and squeezed it gently. There was no shake there. He always turned a formal greeting into a soft, intimate gesture.
Imogen responded with a tighter grip. She was coping just fine in a man’s world. He didn’t have to treat her like a delicate princess, even though she wouldn’t mind him hoisting her onto his trusty steed and galloping away to his castle.
Castle? Steed? Where did that thought come from?
“And how have you been?” he asked, studying her. “Did you enjoy your trip to Thailand?”
He’d remembered? Imogen struggled not to show her surprise. Their last meeting had been two months ago, just before she’d taken a rare holiday. She didn’t always fancy going alone, but had known she was ready for a break or risk burnout. It had done her good. “Yes, it was lovely. Very relaxing.”
“And were you suitably pampered on a paradise beach?” He finally released her hand.
“Yes. It was perfect.” Imogen smiled and resisted the urge to touch her face, tuck her hair behind her ears, and fiddle with her necklace. A warmth had spread through her. Their conversation last time hadn’t just been idle chit-chat. He’d been interested and remembered what she’d had planned in her life.
“I keep meaning to take some time off and get there myself,” he said. “Not just Bangkok for business, but to the beaches, see the sights.”
“You should. I highly recommend it.” She gestured toward the bucket chair on his side of the desk. “Please, take a seat.”
He sat, crossed one leg over the other and curled his hands around the ends of the arms. His fingers were big against the brown leather and his fingernails neat and oblong-shaped. He wore a silver Mille Tourbillion watch that peeked from the cuff of his suit jacket—a timekeeping accessory worth double the price of her Chelsea apartment.
But in her line of work, Imogen was no stranger to extreme wealth, and instead she wondered what his hands would feel like running over her body. It wasn’t the first occasion thoughts of Kane’s hands had drifted through her mind. The skin on his palms wasn’t callused—he didn’t exactly partake in manual labor—and she imagined that he’d be very skilled when it came to pleasing a woman. It seemed to her that he was an expert and pretty damn efficient at everything he did; it made no sense that his determination to be the best of the best wouldn’t translate into the bedroom as well.
“About those transfers,” he said. “I trust it won’t be a problem?”
“No, not at all. I saw your financial director’s email. It can be done this afternoon. I’ll see to it personally.”
“You didn’t really need to take time out of your busy schedule to attend a meeting about this. Personal international banking is all part of our service.”
“And a very good service it is too.” He smiled.
“I’m glad you think so.” Imogen adored his smile. It softened his eyes and changed him from a fierce individual who owned a global empire to a man who was handsome and charming and intriguing and…
“But there is a reason for me coming in.” He leaned forward and set his jaw in a determined way.
“Yes.” He settled his gaze on her. “I want more.”
Imogen tried to beat down a flush of heat that was rising up her chest to her neck and cheeks. She was prone to blushing, but was determined not to, not now. “More?”
“Yes.” He stood and snapped down his suit jacket, removing the barest hint of a crease that had folded in the center. “There is something I need to discuss with you, Imogen.” He narrowed his eyes and looked down at her. “I can call you that, can’t I?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Anytime. She loved the way he said her name, his English public school accent plumping out the vowels.
She watched as he walked to the window and studied the London skyline. What on earth could he want from her? From the bank? He had the most privileged and exclusive account available. Mr. Kane Ward was one of Coutts’ most valued customers and he had every service at his disposal from one of the most highly regarded financial companies in the world. The bank Her Royal Highness the Queen used.
“It’s… delicate,” he said, pushing his hands into his suit trouser pockets and standing in yet another bright spot of sunlight. “What I need you to do.”
“We can do delicate.”
“What about you?” He turned. “I said what I need you to do.”
For a moment Imogen saw him in silhouette—broad shoulders, neat waist, long legs—then he stepped away from the window and up to her desk. He came to stand at her side, bypassing the wide piece of furniture that had been between them and had afforded her protection from the sexy but dark energy he emitted.
“Only you can help, Imogen,” he said quietly but with a note of non-negotiation in his tone.
“I’m sure it can be arranged.” She paused and cleared her throat. “Whatever it is that’s er… delicate and you need me to do.”
“I require this transfer within my bank accounts because of a new venture.”
“I figured as much.” Imogen paused. “But it’s all your money, you’re not borrowing any, so it’s not really Coutts’ business what the reason is. You just need to instruct us and we’ll do it.”
A smile tugged at his mouth. “Much as I like obedience”—he set his backside against Imogen’s desk and leaned onto it—“I really would like you to make this your business. Your particular business.”
She could smell his cologne. It was woody and thick, a sensual, blatant scent that seemed to invade every cell in her nose and her lungs. “What do you mean?”
“It’s new territory. I’ve, if you’ll excuse the expression, had my fingers in many pies, but this…”
One side of his mouth twisted into a half smile. “Well, let’s just say this is infiltrating into something more personal.” He paused. “Much more personal.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t want you to. Not yet anyway.” He stood and crossed his arms. His suit tightened around his biceps, highlighting some damn fine muscles that lay beneath.
“Okay.” Imogen drew out the last syllable. She didn’t say anything else. She’d let him fill the silence even though she felt at a disadvantage being lower than him in her seat.
But it was a silence that stretched on and on. The only sound was the self-important ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner.
He kept his gaze on her.
Imogen swallowed and hoped her cheeks weren’t flushing. This was what had happened last time. She’d blushed as he’d stared at her. She hadn’t known what to say and thoughts of him—as a man, not as a client—had swirled in her mind, bringing with them images of him naked, of her naked, of them together… naked.
“I’d like to request your company tomorrow,” he said eventually, his voice low and grating, as though speaking over sandpaper.
“On official bank business?”
“If that makes it easier for you to take a day out of the office, yes.”
“Day out?” That was unheard of. She was a workaholic, barely took time away from her desk to eat and sleep.
“Yes. A day away from all of this.” He indicated the wooden paneled walls and the huge window. “A day out with me discussing my new business venture. It is only you, Imogen, who can help, so I really must insist.”
“Really?” She was sure he had a hundred minions at his beck and call. “But—?”
“Yes.” He tilted his chin and a small muscle twitched beneath the neat layer of beard he sported. “So do you agree?”
“Well, yes, of course. If it’s vital.”
His mouth tipped into a satisfied smile. He was clearly a man who liked to get what he wanted—every time. “I’ll have my driver pick you up at ten.”
“Your home in Chelsea.”
“You know where I live?” She couldn’t keep the astonishment from her voice.
“Naturally. You hold the key to my assets, Imogen White, which means I know everything about you.”
Her breath caught in her throat. So he wasn’t interested in her for her. It was merely because she had his accounts at her fingertips.
He smirked. “Please don’t look so alarmed. I haven’t been stalking you. I just like to know the details about my inner circle, and you, Imogen, are definitely in that circle.”
Alarm warred with flattery. She was in Kane Ward’s inner circle? The Kane Ward. Yes, of course she was. She’d been handling his accounts for several years. They’d known each other for just as long, in a professional sense, of course. Why wouldn’t she be in his inner circle?
“So ten o’clock,” he said. “Wear something pretty, and a hat if you have one.”
Pretty? A hat? What the…?
“You mean… not a suit.” She glanced down at the gray pencil skirt she’d teamed with a matching jacket that morning. Beneath it she wore a simple white silk shirt and a string of red beads that matched her heeled shoes.
“Much as power dressing is very attractive,” he said, following her line of sight, “I think you’d be more comfortable in a dress.”
“Where are we going?” Imogen beat down a wave of panic. A dress? Bloody hell. Did she have any pretty dresses in her wardrobe? And a hat?
“Ah, that’s for me to know and you to find out. But you will enjoy it, I promise.” He shoved back the sleeve on his jacket and glanced at his watch. “I have to go.”
Imogen stood and pressed her hand over her thighs, pushing the faint lines from her skirt. “Yes, of course, and I’ll follow your instructions to the letter and get your accounts switched exactly as you want.”
“Perfect.” He smiled.
It was a little shady, though, secretive, as if she’d said something in a way that had pleased him over and above his banking business.
She wasn’t sure what.
He reached for her hand. She thought he’d shake it in that gentle, intimate way he always did, but instead he drew her knuckles up close to his mouth and hovered his lips just above them.
“Until tomorrow,” he said, his breath warming her flesh.
Imogen was aware of a zing of excitement flooding through her and she watched, mesmerized as he kissed her skin.
She opened her mouth. No words came out.
He looked at her from beneath long dark lashes and with his slightly moist lips still on her flesh. His nose had a small bump in it she hadn’t noticed before, as though it had maybe been broken a long time ago.
She shut her mouth and held his gaze. It was as if he were assessing her reaction to his gesture.
She was assessing all right. Kane Ward had kissed her hand. What the hell did that mean?
But was she complaining?
He straightened and released her.
Imogen dropped her hand to her side and clenched her fists. She wanted to press the patch of skin to her own lips, catch any lingering flavor or scent of him. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t let him know that she craved finding out more about him, the man. That wouldn’t be professional. She’d have to keep that under wraps.
“We’ll have a very interesting day,” Kane said, stepping toward the door. “I can tell.”
Imogen stared at her wardrobe. What was she going to do? A wall of trouser and skirt suits faced her, along with a collection of plain blouses, all perfect for wearing with them.
Other than that she had sweats, jeans, and t-shirts that she flung on when home from the office and all she wanted to do was chill out. It seemed she’d bypassed pretty shopping altogether—it just wasn’t on her radar. There was nothing pink or flowery or vaguely sweet hiding amongst the block colors and neat lines.
“Bugger.” She glanced at the clock. It was past nine. Far too late to nip to King’s Road, and there was no way she’d get an internet delivery before ten the next morning even if she did find something she liked online. Which was highly unlikely—she had no idea what kind of pretty dress to go for and as for the hat…?
There was only one thing for it. She’d have to go and see her neighbor, Clarris, and root through her cupboard to see if she had anything she could borrow. It was improbable; Clarris was a single mother who worked on Fleet Street. She spent her days in the same kind of clothes as Imogen with the only difference being her casual clothes often had sticky patches on them from her three-year-old daughter, Katie.
Imogen locked up her apartment and went to the next door along her side of the building. She knocked quietly, knowing that Katie would be in bed after a long day with the childminder and Clarris likely relaxing with a glass of wine and the latest episode of Eastenders.
“Hey, Imogen. Are you okay?” Clarris asked, pulling open the door, predicted glass of wine in hand and her hair a little squashed on one side, giving the impression she’d been lying on the sofa.
“Yes, well, no. I’ve got a dilemma.”
Clarris raised her eyebrows. “Oh, that sounds interesting.”
“It is.” Imogen frowned. “Remember that guy I told you about, the handsome client.”
“The billionaire customer?” She opened the door fully. “Get in here and tell me all about it.” The sleepy quality had left her voice.
“The billionaire, well, yes, but most of them are where I work. The one with the—”
“Hypnotizing eyes and sexy voice.” She shut the door and grinned. “Once dated a princess and owns half of London.”
“Well, I don’t know if they dated, and I think half of London might be an exaggeration. He owns several shops, a couple of restaurants, a hotel, and an upmarket estate agency but—”
“Kane Ward.” Clarris held up her glass in triumph. “Number eighteen on the UK’s rich list, tops every eligible bachelor list and you’ve barely touched on what he owns.”
“Bloody hell. How do you remember all of this stuff?” Imogen stared at her friend aghast. “I should be more careful what I tell you.”
“I remember everything everyone tells me and then I dig for more info, my dear. I’m a journalist, don’t you know. Being nosy is not just my profession, it is also my addiction.”
“You’re not kidding.” Imogen strolled into the living room and spotted a half drunk bottle of pinot grigio. “Can I?”
“As long as it will loosen your tongue. I need details.” Clarris reached for a wineglass from the open-plan living area and passed it over. “Juicy gossip.”
“You need juicy gossip, I need a dress.” Imogen filled the glass halfway then took a slug.
“A dress. What sort of dress?” Clarris sat on the edge of the sofa and leaned forward.
“Okay…” She looked thoughtful. “When for?”
“Now, well, not now, tomorrow.”
“He’s taking me out?”
“I don’t know.”
“During the day?”
“And it has to be a dress and it has to be pretty? Why?”
“Yes. Blimey, slow down with the questions.” Imogen had another sip of wine.
“Just trying to help.” Clarris raised her hands as if in surrender. Her wine sloshed to the side of the glass.
“I haven’t got anything,” Imogen said with a sigh. “And that’s all he said, wear something pretty because I need your advice.”
“Your advice?” Clarris said, frowning.
“Yes, a new business venture that only I can help him with. So he said.”
“And he wants you to wear something pretty to this meeting?”
“And a hat.”
“A hat! What the…?” Clarris set her drink on the table and rubbed her hands together. “This is so exciting. The Kane Ward wants you to be dressed all pretty, and in a hat, and is taking you out to discuss a new business venture. Fucking hell, this is the stuff of your wet dreams, girl.”
“How would you know?” Imogen frowned.
Clarris gave Imogen a look that said Don’t try to deny it.
Imogen huffed. Was she really so transparent? “That kind of sums it up, yes, but I’m still no nearer to a pretty dress.” She wafted her hand down her body. “All I have is work stuff or casual stuff.”
“I wonder why…?” Clarris frowned. “What kind of place would a billionaire take a sexy woman dressed pretty in the middle of the day—?”
“Well, I don’t know if he thinks I’m sexy, it’s just business.”
“Oh, shut up. Have you stood in front of a mirror lately?”
“You’re bloody gorgeous and he’s damn lucky to be taking you out. Successful, independent, and single. Single because you never have time to date.”
Imogen felt arguments stacking up on her tongue. She didn’t date because no one had taken her fancy. If someone had, she’d have time, she’d make the time.
“And if you ask me,” Clarris continued quickly. “Kane Ward is a brilliantly smart man tricking you into going on a date by telling you it’s business. Seems to me that’s the surest way to get you to say yes.”
“It is business.” Imogen frowned.
Clarris stood, set down her wine, put her hands on her hips. “Oh, no, this isn’t business, this is horse racing.”
“It’s June and that means one thing, the sport of kings.”
“You’re talking in riddles.”
“It’s Royal Ascot this week and tomorrow is Ladies’ Day. I’ve sent one of my team to cover it.”
“But why would he take me there?” Imogen rubbed her temple. She’d never been to the races in her life. Why on earth would Kane Ward want to take her? “You can’t be right.”
“Oh, but I am. And the weather forecast is lovely, perfect for a pretty dress and a hat. He’s going to spoil you rotten in the place to be seen in June.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I’d bet Katie’s best teddy on it. He’s not the sort of man, from what I gather, to take a girl for a pizza or a walk in the park. He’ll only do anything if it’s the best.”
“Language, you’re a lady, remember. Or at least he thinks that.” She reached for Imogen’s hand. “Come on. I can help. You’ve come to the right place.”
“I have?” Imogen said, thoughts of what tomorrow would entail rushing through her mind. Could Clarris be right? Was Kane taking her to the races? She wouldn’t have a clue what to do. Would she be expected to bet? Surely they were just going to lunch somewhere. He’d said he liked power dressing; perhaps he was just living up to his reputation for making demands and having them met by ordering her to wear something different, just to see if she would.
“I’m really not sure about this,” Imogen said.
“Of course you are. Come on, I haven’t got much. You see me going to work, I’m a black suit kind of gal, and of course this.” She gestured at her tatty jeans and frayed sweater. “But I have got that dress I wore to my sister’s wedding last year, when I was a bridesmaid. That’s pretty, beyond pretty.”
“Is it pink?” Imogen’s heart sank. She knew it was. She remembered the flowery number. Had seen it in the photographs. She really couldn’t imagine wearing anything so girly.
“Behave and stop pouting,” Clarris said, standing. “And come this way.” She gripped Imogen’s hand tighter and whizzed her through to the bedroom.
The place was a tip. Clothes and makeup and hair products everywhere and the bed unmade, the duvet a mountain-like twist in the center. It smelled of perfume and hairspray and fabric conditioner.
“It’s in here,” Clarris said, letting go of Imogen and kicking a pair of long black patent boots out of the way so she could get to a wardrobe. She pulled out a sheer chiffon dress in the palest pink. Cerise flowers circled the hem then thinned and became smaller as they dissipated toward the waist. It had a slim white belt, and the material became so pale that by the time it rose in scallops over the chest it was nearly white. In fact, the delicate spaghetti straps were white.
It wasn’t nearly as over the top as Imogen remembered. “Oh…” she said. “It is pretty.” Imogen took it and surveyed it at arm’s length. It looked her size; luckily she and Clarris were both roughly the same height and weight.
“Very, my sister was pink crazy but we talked her down from the ledge on this one and compromised.” Clarris reached upward to a shelf and grabbed a hatbox.
“This,” Clarris said, dumping the box on the bed, “is perfect for Ladies’ Day.” She pulled out a small but fancy hat. It had pretty loops made of stiff lace set in an intricate bow at an angle, a narrow upturned brim, and was the same shade as the darker flowers on the dress.
Imogen stared at it and her heart beat faster. It wasn’t something she had ever thought of wearing, but now she looked at it she suddenly wanted to, desperately. She was going to the races with Kane Ward—a man she’d secretly fantasized about, and in the dead of night touched herself and imagined his hands on her, bringing her release.
None of it she’d thought would actually be in her future. But it seemed it was, and now all she had to do was maintain control and make sure she stayed businesslike and professional at all times. Kane wasn’t a man who liked weak or easily manipulated people around him, so she had to show him she wasn’t.