'You are Miss Bowes?' Jack added, for a third time, when Sally still did not speak. Now he sounded downright impatient.
'I…Yes, I am. I told you that last night.' Sally cleared her throat. She realised that she did not sound very sure. She certainly did not sound like the authoritative owner of the most successful and avant-garde club in London. Once, long ago, in the genteel drawing rooms of Oxford, she had indeed been Miss Bowes, the eldest daughter, sister to Miss Petronella and Miss Constance. But a great deal had happened since then.
Under Jack Kestrel's pitiless dark gaze she felt younger than her twenty-seven years, young and strangely vulnerable. She straightened in her chair, brushed the tangled hair out of her eyes and hoped desperately that the ink-stains she could see on her fingers did not also adorn her face. It was infuriating that she had been caught like this. Normally she would change into an evening gown before the club opened, but because she had fallen asleep she had not had time, and no one had come to wake her.
'What can I do for you, Mr Kestrel?' She assumed her most businesslike voice. She had already realised that this could not be a social call to follow up their meeting the previous night. No matter how brief and sweet their encounter had seemed at the time, something fundamental had changed. Now he was angry. 'I think you must know perfectly well why I am here, Miss Bowes.' Jack's tone was clipped. 'Had I known who you were last night, I would have broached the matter then. As it was, I realised your identity too late. But you must surely have known I would seek you out.'
Sally got to her feet. It made her feel stronger and more capable. 'I am sorry,' she said politely, 'but I have no idea what you are talking about, Mr Kestrel, nor why you are here, unless it is to enjoy the famous hospitality of the Blue Parrot.'
She had heard that Jack Kestrel had once spent a thousand pounds on champagne alone in one sitting at the gambling tables in Monte Carlo. Sally wished that he would do the same at the Blue Parrot. But it seemed unlikely, given the hostile expression on his face.
Jack's mouth twisted with sarcastic appreciation at her words. 'Legendary as I understand the Blue Parrot's hospitality to be, Miss Bowes,' he drawled, 'that is not what I came for.'
Sally shrugged. 'Then if you could perhaps enlighten me?' She gestured to the papers on the desk. 'Stimulating as your company is, Mr Kestrel, I do not have the time to play guessing games with you. As I mentioned last night, my work is my passion and I am keen to return to it.'
Some emotion flared behind his eyes, vivid as lightning. Sally could feel the anger and antagonism in him even more powerfully now, held under tight control, but almost tangible. She wished the lamps were turned up. In the semi-darkness she felt at a strong disadvantage.
'I can quite believe that you have a passion for what you do, Miss Bowes,' Jack said, through his teeth. 'You must possess a great deal of nerve to pretend that you are unaware of my business with you.'
Sally did not reply immediately. She moved out from behind the shelter of the desk, turned up one of the gas lamps, struck a match and lit the second and the third. She was pleased to see that her hands were quite steady, betraying none of the nervousness she was feeling inside. She could feel Jack Kestrel watching her, his dark eyes fixed on her face. She wished the room were a little bigger. His physical presence felt almost overwhelming.
She turned to find that he was standing directly behind her. There was something close to a smile lurking in his eyes, but it was not a reassuring smile. Now that she was standing she found that her head reached only to his shoulder, and she was a tall woman. It was unusual for her to have to look up in order to look a man in the eyes.
'Well?' he said softly. 'Have you changed your mind about this unconvincing little game of pretence that we are indulging in?' His appraising dark gaze travelled over her. 'I must confess that you are not quite as I imagined,' he added slowly. He raised a hand and turned her face to the light. 'When we met last night I thought your looks unusual, but when I found out who you were I was surprised. I was expecting someone a great deal more conventionally pretty. After all, they call you the Beautiful Miss Bowes, do they not—'
Sally slapped his hand away. Despite her anger, his touch had made her skin prickle. His gaze made her acutely aware of her body beneath the plain brown shirt and skirt she was wearing. She felt very strange… She paused to think about the hot, melting feeling within her. She felt as though she was bursting out of her corset and coming unlaced. Not a single one of the gentlemen who frequented the Blue Parrot had ever made her feel that way, although plenty had tried.
'Mr Kestrel…' she kept her voice steady '…you speak in riddles. Worse, you are boring me. My good looks, or lack of them, are something about which I alone need be concerned. As for the rest, unless you explain yourself I shall have to call my staff to remove you.'Excerpt by permission.(c) Harlequin Enterprises