At No Man’s Command
The shock engagement of the century!
It looks like our favorite tearaway, the notorious Aiesha Adams, is trying to change her spots. Inside sources have revealed that not only is she currently holed up in the Scottish countryside with the gorgeous aristocrat James Challender, but the pair are secretly engaged!
We’ve always had a soft spot for Aiesha, and with rumors of her unhappy childhood trailing her footsteps wherever she goes, we knew her wild streak hid something more. But we thought Aiesha and James were sworn enemies…perhaps when there are fireworks outside the bedroom, the sparks are just too impossible to resist!
An Excerpt from At No Man’s Command
Aiesha had been at Lochbannon a week without a single whisper in the press about her whereabouts. But then, who would have thought of hunting her down in the Highlands of Scotland in the home of the woman whose marriage she had effectively destroyed ten years ago?
It was the perfect hideaway, and the fact that Louise Challender had been called away to visit a sick friend abroad meant Aiesha had had the place to herself for the last couple of days. And, being the dead of winter, there was not even a housekeeper or a gardener to disturb her idyll.
She closed her eyes and, tilting her head back, breathed in the ice in the air as fresh flakes of snow began to fall. The soft press of each snowflake was like a caress against her skin. After the traffic fumes and incessant noise and activity of Las Vegas, the cold, fresh, quiet Highland air was like breathing in an elixir, bringing her jaded senses back to zinging life.
Being up here on her own where no one could find her was like coming off a stage. Stepping out of a costume. Undressing the part of Vegas showgirl. She could feel it falling away from her like a heavy cloak. Up here she could take her game face off. The flirty vamp face. The face that told everyone she was perfectly happy singing in a gentlemen’s club because the tips were great and she had the days free to shop, hang out by the pool or get a spray tan.
Up here in the Highlands she could relax. Regroup. Get in touch with nature.
Revisit her dreams…
The only hiccup was the dog.
Aiesha could babysit cats, no problem. Cats were pretty easy to take care of. She just filled their dish with biscuits and cleaned out their litter tray, if they had one. She didn’t have to pat them or get close to them. Most cats were pretty aloof, which suited her just fine.
Dogs were different. Dogs wanted to get close to you. To bond with you. To love you.
To trust you to keep them safe.
Aiesha glanced down at the limpid brown eyes of the golden retriever sitting at her feet with slavish devotion, its tail brushing against the carpet of snow like a feathered fan.
The memory of another pair of trusting brown eyes stabbed at her heart like a knitting needle. Eyes that still haunted her, even though so many years had passed. She pushed back the thick sleeve of her coat and looked at the underside of her wrist where the blue and red ink of her tattoo was a vivid and permanent reminder of her failure to keep her one and only best friend safe.
Aiesha swallowed the monkey wrench of guilt in her throat and frowned down at the dog. ‘Why can’t you take yourself for a walk? It’s not as if you need me to show you the way. There aren’t any fences to stop you.’ She made a shooing motion with her hand. ‘Go on. Go for a run. Go chase a rabbit or a stoat or something.’
The dog continued to look at her with that unblinking stare, a soft little ‘play with me’ whine coming from its throat. Aiesha blew out a breath of resignation and began trudging in the direction of the forest that fringed the stately Highland home. ‘Come on then, you stupid mutt. But I’m only going as far as the river. It looks like this snow’s going to set in for the night.’
James Challender drove through the snow-encrusted wrought iron gates of Lochbannon as evening folded in. The secluded estate was spectacular in any season but in winter it turned into a wonderland. The Gothic-style mansion with its turrets and spires looked like something out of a children’s fairy tale. The frozen water in the fountain in front of the house looked like a Renaissance ice sculpture with delicate icicles hanging down like centuries-old stalactites. The thick forest that backed on to the estate was coated in pure white snow, the rolling fields were also thickly carpeted, and the air was so sharp and clean and cold it burned his nostrils as he drew it in.
The lights were on in the house, which meant the housekeeper, Mrs McBain, had generously postponed her annual holiday to look after Bonnie while his mother visited her friend, who had suffered an accident in outback Australia. James had offered to look after the dog but his mother had insisted via a hurried text before she boarded her flight that it was all organised and not to worry. Why his mother couldn’t put her dog in boarding kennels like everyone else did was beyond him. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford it. He’d made sure she was well provided for after the divorce from his father.
Lochbannon was a little large for an older single woman with only a dog for company and a handful of staff, but he had wanted to give his mother a safe haven, a place that was totally unconnected to her former life as Clifford Challender’s wife.
Although he had insisted the estate was in his mother’s name, James liked to spend the occasional week up in the Highlands away from the fast lane of London, which was why he’d decided to come up in spite of his mother’s assurances that Bonnie was well taken care of.
This was the one place he could focus without distractions. A week working here was worth a month in his busy London office. He liked the solitude, the peace and tranquillity of being alone, without people needing him to fix something, do something, or be something.
Here he could let his shoulders down and relax. Here he could think. Clear his head of the stress of managing a company that was still suffering the effects of his father’s mishandling of projects and clients.
Lochbannon was also one of the few places where he could escape the intrusive spotlight of the press. The repercussions of his father’s profligate lifestyle had spread across his own life like an indelible stain. The newshounds were always on the lookout for a scandal to prove their theory of ‘like father, like son’.
Even before he turned off the engine he heard the sound of Bonnie’s welcoming bark. He smiled as he walked to the front door. Maybe his mother was right about her precious dog being too sensitive to leave with strangers. Besides, he had to admit there was something rather homely and comfortable about an enthusiastic canine greeting.
The door opened before he could put his key in the lock and a pair of wide grey eyes blinked at him in outraged shock, as if suddenly finding a prowler on the doorstep instead of the postman. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
James’s hand fell away from the door. His body went stiff as if the snow falling behind him had frozen him to the spot. Aiesha Adams. The infamous, lethally gorgeous, impossibly sexy and outrageously wild Aiesha Adams. ‘I believe that’s supposed to be my line,’ he said when he could locate his voice.
At a casual glance there was nothing outstanding about her features. Dressed in a loose-fitting boyfriend sweater and yoga pants and without make-up, she looked like your average girl next door. Mid-length chestnut hair that was neither curly nor straight but somewhere in between. Skin that was clear and unlined apart from a couple of tiny scars that were either from chickenpox or the site of a picked pimple, one on the left side of her forehead and one just below her right cheekbone. She was of average height and of slim build, the result of lucky genes rather than effort, he surmised.
For a moment—a brief moment—she looked fifteen years old again.
But look a little closer and the unusual colour of her eyes was nothing short of arresting. Breath-snatching. Storm and smoke and shadows swirled in their depths.
The shape of her mouth had the power to render a man speechless. That lush, ripe mouth was pure sin. The bee-stung fullness, the youthfulness, and the vermillion borders so beautifully aligned it physically hurt to look and not touch.
What was she doing here? Had she broken in?
What if someone found out she was here…with him? His heart galloped ahead a few beats. What if the press found out? What if Phoebe found out?
Aiesha’s chin came up to that don’t-mess-with-me height James had seen her do so well in the past, her body posture morphing from schoolgirl to sultry, defiant tart in a blink. ‘Your mother invited me.’
His mother? James’s frown was so tight it made his forehead hurt. What was going on? His mother’s rushed text message hadn’t mentioned anything about Aiesha. Not. One. Word. Why would his mother invite the girl who’d caused so much heartbreak and mayhem in the past? It didn’t make sense.
‘Rather magnanimous of her under the circumstances, is it not?’ he said. ‘Has she locked up her jewellery and all the silver?’
Her eyes flashed gunmetal-grey fire at him. ‘Is anyone with you?’
‘I hate to repeat myself, but I believe that’s what I’m supposed to be asking you.’ James closed the door on the chilly air but, in doing so, it made the sudden silence and the space between them far too intimate.
Being intimate—in any sense of the word—with Aiesha Adams was dangerous. He dared not think about it. Would not think about it. Being in the same country as her was reputation suicide, let alone in the same house. She oozed sex appeal. She wore it like a slinky coat, slipping in and out of it whenever she felt the urge. Every movement she made was pure seductress. How many men had fallen for that lithe body and that Lolita mouth? Even with that smoky glower and that upthrust chin she still managed to look sex kittenish. He could feel the thrum of his blood in his veins, the sudden rush of sexual awareness that was as shocking to him as it was unwelcome.
He bent down to ruffle Bonnie’s ears to distract himself and was rewarded with a whimper and a lavish licking. At least someone was pleased to see him.
‘Did anyone follow you here?’ Aiesha asked. ‘The press? Journalists? Anyone?’
James straightened from ruffling the dog’s ears to give her a sardonic look. ‘Running away from another scandal, are we?’
Her lips tightened, her eyes burning with the dislike she had always assaulted him with. ‘Don’t pretend you don’t know. It’s been in every paper and newsfeed.’
Was there anyone who didn’t know? The news of her affair with a married politician in the US had gone viral. James had pointedly ignored it, or tried to. But then some unscrupulous newshound had unearthed Aiesha’s role in the break-up of his parents’ marriage. It had only been a sentence or two and not every paper or newsfeed ran with it, but the shame and embarrassment he had been trying to put behind him for a decade was back with a vengeance.
But what else could he expect? Aiesha was a wild child who attracted scandal and had been from the moment his mother had brought her home from the back streets of London as a teenage runaway. She was a smart-mouthed little guttersnipe who deliberately created negative drama, even for the people who tried to help her. His mother had been badly let down by Aiesha’s disreputable behaviour in the past, which was why he was puzzled that she had allowed her to come and stay now. Why would his mother invite the unscrupulous girl who had stolen not only heirloom jewellery from her, but tried to steal her husband from her as well?
James shrugged off his coat to hang it in the cupboard in the hall. ‘Married men are a particular obsession of yours, are they not?’
He felt the stab of those grey eyes drilling between his shoulder blades. He felt the sudden kick of his pulse. He got a thrill out of seeing her rattled by him. He was the only person she couldn’t hide her true colours from. She was a true chameleon, changing to serve her interests, laying on the charm when it suited her, reeling in her next victim, enjoying the game of slaying yet another heart and wallet.
But he was immune. He’d seen her for what she was right from the start. She might have got rid of her East End accent and chain store clothes, but underneath she was a pickpocket whose aim in life was to sleep her way to the top. Her latest victim was a US Senator whose career and marriage were unravelling as a result. The press had captured a damning shot of her leaving his suite at the Vegas hotel where she worked as a lounge singer.
‘No one must know I’m here,’ she said. ‘Do you understand? No one.’
James turned from neatly arranging the sleeves of his coat to face her. She was still looking at him with hatred but something else moved in her gaze, a flicker of uncertainty, or was it fear? She quickly disguised it, however. She jutted her chin and flattened those delectably full lips. Her mouth had always fascinated him. Ripe and soft and full, a mouth built for sin and sex and seduction. There was nothing innocent about her mouth or her body. She was a five-foot-eight knockout package of sinuous cat-like curves that could wrap around a man until he was strangled by his need of her.
And she knew it.
James moved past her to stride to the warmth of the sitting room. Thinking about that mouth was a bad move. He could practically feel those plump lips clasped around him, drawing on him until he went weak at the knees. He suppressed a shudder of traitorous desire. He would not think about that mouth. He would not think about that body. He would not think of the lust that burned inside him.
‘No one will find you’re here because you’re not staying.’
She followed him into the sitting room, her bare feet padding over the Persian carpet like the paws of a light-footed lioness. ‘You can’t throw me out. This is your mother’s house, not yours.’ She stood with her arms folded across her chest, looking exactly like she had a decade ago, all pouty, sulky teenager even though she was now twenty-five years old.
He let his gaze run over her in a leisurely sweep as if inspecting a cheap and tawdry item he had no intention of buying. ‘Pack your bags and get out.’
She slitted her eyes like a wildcat staring down a wolf. ‘I’m not leaving.’
James felt his blood skip and then roar through his veins. It thickened in his groin, reigniting the embers of a fire that had never quite been extinguished. He hated himself for it. He saw it as a weakness. It reduced him to the baseness of a wild animal with no other instinct than to mate with whatever willing female was available.
He wasn’t cut from the same low quality cloth as his father. He could control his impulses. Aiesha had tried her seduction routine on him ten years ago but he hadn’t taken the bait.
And he wasn’t going to take it now.
‘I’m expecting a guest,’ he said.
‘The woman I intend to marry is joining me at the weekend. You’ll be decidedly de trop.’
She laughed out loud, even going so far as to bend over double to hold her sides as if he’d told her the most humorous of jokes. ‘You mean to say you’ve actually asked that stuck-up frozen-faced heiress who doesn’t do anything but spend Daddy’s money on the High Street to marry you?’
James ground his teeth so hard he thought he’d have to take his meals through a straw for the rest of his life. ‘Phoebe’s the patron of several well-known charities.’
Aiesha was still giggling like a naughty schoolgirl. It made the base of his spine tighten like a bowstring. How like her to mock the most important decision of his life. He had chosen his future bride after lengthy consideration. Phoebe Trentonfield had her own money, which meant he could rule out the gold-digging factor. It had plagued him for most of his adult life, trying to find a partner who wanted him for himself instead of his money. It was the first box he wanted ticked. He was thirty-three years old. He wanted to settle down. He wanted to build a stable home life—like the one he’d thought he had until his father’s affairs had come to light. He wanted his mother to enjoy the experience of having grandchildren. He wanted someone who was content to be a traditional wife so he could rebuild the Challender empire his father had so recklessly frittered away. He wanted stability and predictability instead of scandal and chaos. His father was the impulsive one. Not him. He knew what he wanted and was determined and disciplined enough to get it and keep it.
Aiesha gave him a goading look. ‘What’s she going to say when she finds out you’re here with me?’
His molars went down another couple of millimetres. ‘She’s not going to find out because you’re leaving first thing in the morning.’
She hitched one of her hips in a model-like pose, a teasing smile still lurking around the corners of her mouth. ‘So you’re not going to be a big old meanie and throw me out in the snow on my toosh tonight, then?’
He wanted to bury her in the snow, at least ten feet deep so he wouldn’t be tempted to touch her. And the less he thought about her curvy little toosh the better. How was he going to get her out of here? He could hardly send her packing at this time of night, with the roads so slippery and treacherous. He had only just made it through from the main road himself. The nearest village had a bed and breakfast but it was currently closed for the winter. The closest hotel was a half hour drive away…an hour in these conditions. ‘Does your car have snow chains?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t bring a car. Your mother picked me up from the airport in Edinburgh.’
What was his mother thinking? This was getting crazier by the minute. He hadn’t known his mother had been in contact with Aiesha over the years. What was she thinking bringing the daughter of the devil back into her life?
Was this a set-up? A practical joke?
Surely not… How on earth could it be? His mother had insisted he not worry about the dog. Surely she knew how dangerous it would be to put Aiesha in the same house as him. She was a ticking time bomb. She courted trouble. She craved attention from anyone wearing trousers, making it her mission to get them out of them as fast as she could. She was ruthless and shameless and as sexy as a pin-up girl. Damn it. ‘Right, well, I’ll drive you back to the airport first thing in the morning,’ he said. ‘Your little stint as dog and house-sitter is over.’
She sashayed over to him, deliberately trailing one of her fingertips along one of the whitened tendons on the back of one of his clenched fists. ‘Loosen up, James. You’re as wound up as a tight spring. If you need an outlet for all that pressure—’ she batted her impossibly long eyelashes at him ‘—just call me, OK?’
James forced himself to endure the electric shock of her touch without flinching. He forced himself not to look at her mouth, where the tip of her pink tongue had left a moistly glistening trail. He forced himself not to slam her against the nearest wall and slake the fireball of his lust by plunging into her hot wet warmth and doing what he’d always wanted to do to her. Every cell in his body was vibrating with need, and what sickened him the most was she damn well knew it. ‘Get the freaking hell out of my sight.’
Her eyes glinted with devilment. ‘I love it when a man talks dirty to me.’ She gave an exaggerated little shiver that made her braless breasts jiggle beneath her sweater. ‘It makes me come in a flash.’
James curled his fingers so tightly into his palms he felt every one of their joints protest. ‘Be ready at seven. Understood?’
She gave him another sultry little smile that sent another scorching flare to his groin. ‘You can’t get rid of me that easily. Didn’t you hear the weather report for tonight?’
A fist of panic clutched at his insides. He’d heard it in the car half an hour ago but back then he’d welcomed the thought of a blizzard snowing him in for a few days so he could put the final touches to the drawings on the Sherwood project before Phoebe joined him at the weekend.
He glared at Aiesha with such intense loathing he could feel it burning through his eyeballs like hot pokers. ‘You planned this, didn’t you?’
She tossed the length of her glossy chestnut hair back over one of her shoulders as she laughed that spine-fizzing laugh again. ‘You think I’ve got that much power that I can manipulate the weather to suit me? You flatter me, James.’
He sucked in a breath as she moved to the stairs with her swinging hip gait. Carnal lust roared in his body but he wasn’t going to let her win this. They could be snowed in for a month and he would still resist her.
He would not give in.
He. Would. Not. Give. In.