Damn. Burying his attraction to her was going to take far more effort than he’d thought. Still, once he’d got rid of her, desire would fade and in future he’d steer well clear of women who obliterated his self-control and drove him mindless with just a kiss.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were planning to hire someone to do your PR?’ he said mildly, his voice betraying nothing of the battle raging inside him.
‘Because I knew you wouldn’t have approved.’
‘You’re right. I don’t. I want you to use my PR people.’
Jo sighed. ‘You see. This is why I didn’t want you here. I knew you were going to do this. Alex, I don’t want to use your people.’
‘Why not? My team are tried and tested. Reliable.’ At least as reliable as anyone other than himself could be.
Jo’s expression turn mutinous and Alex wondered where this backbone of steel had sprung from. ‘Your team might be excellent at dealing with finance and inventions and things, but they wouldn’t know one end of a handbag from the other.’ Alex felt his jaw tighten. That might be true, but they could learn. ‘Phoebe handled the account of a graduate from my college a few years ago when she was working at one of the big PR agencies. Maria now works in Paris for one of the top fashion houses. Phoebe has incredible contacts and, well, you can see for yourself what she’s achieved this evening.’
Alex let out a short burst of incredulous laughter. As far as he could tell, all she’d achieved was a series of disasters.
Jo shifted her weight from one foot to the other, but didn’t look as if she intended to back down. ‘OK, so I admit that my handbags on fire wasn’t exactly in the plans, but would your PR team have come up with such a spectacular excuse?’
Probably not, but that wasn’t the point. ‘My PR team would never have let it happen in the first place.’
‘Phoebe didn’t “let” it happen. It was an accident. Not even you can turn it into her fault.’
Hmm. Pity. The implication of her words sank in and Alex winced. He wasn’t that unreasonable. If he did come over as heavy-handed occasionally it was only for Jo’s benefit. But his sister clearly didn’t see it like that. In her eyes Phoebe could do little wrong. Knowing which battles to fight if he wanted to win, Alex decided to switch tactics. ‘How well do you know her?’
‘Pretty well. I’ve been working with her for two months.’
Two months was nothing. He’d known Rob for ten years and it hadn’t stopped his best friend betraying him. ‘And how do you know she won’t drop you the moment someone with better prospects comes along?’
Jo sighed. ‘At the moment I’m her only client. She needs me as much as I need her so I think that makes her pretty trustworthy, don’t you?’ She pushed a lock of hair off her face and fixed him with a stare. ‘Look, Alex. I know I’ve been a nightmare and have given you untold cause for worry. And you’ll never know how grateful I am for all the help and support you’ve given me but I really need to start taking responsibility for my own life. Mistakes and all. You can’t keep protecting me for ever.’
Couldn’t he? He’d been doing exactly that ever since her parents died and he didn’t intend to stop now. Especially after the hideous events of five years ago when he’d screwed up so spectacularly. A familiar wave of guilt washed over him and his chest tightened. He didn’t intend to screw up again.
‘Alex, I really want this. Phoebe and I work well together. She understands what I need. Please don’t mess this up for me.’
The quiet pleading in her voice cut right through him and Alex felt his resolve waver. He ran his gaze over her and looked at her properly for the first time this evening. She’d changed in the two months since he’d last seen her. She seemed more confident, more determined, healthier. More like the girl she’d been before she’d met Rob.
Alex sighed and felt his control over her well-being begin to slip away. As harrowing as the prospect of letting Jo find her own way in the world was, maybe she was right. She was twenty-two. He couldn’t protect her for ever. Maybe it was time he loosened the reins. A little. But if either of them thought he’d just sit back and hope for the best, they could think again.
BY ELEVEN O’CLOCK the following morning Phoebe had spent three hours at her desk, poring over the press, answering calls from potential clients and trying not to wonder where Alex had disappeared to the night before.
Maybe he’d had a date. Maybe he’d succumbed to jet lag and had crashed out in a flowerbed. Maybe he’d been appalled by the haphazard way the party had panned out and left in disgust.
Who knew? Jo certainly hadn’t. And Phoebe really oughtn’t to care either way; as a silent partner he was unlikely to be popping up all the time, and as her client’s brother—and therefore strictly off limits—he could date whoever and pass out wherever he chose. Not that he’d ever been on limits, of course.
But to her intense irritation she did care. Because regardless of where Alex had physically got to last night, he was now lodged in her head and she was going slowly out of her mind.
Her memory had become photographic where Alex was concerned. Every detail of his dark handsome face, every inch of his incredible body was as clear as if he were standing in front of her and she just couldn’t get rid of the image, no matter how hard she tried.
Phoebe pinched the bridge of her nose and screwed her eyes up. He had no right invading her thoughts like this. It was bad enough that he’d barged into her dreams and had proceeded to do
all sorts of deliciously erotic things to her that had woken her up hot and sweating and pulsating with need.
Sleep had whisked her back to the pergola, where he’d kissed her over and over again until she’d been panting and whimpering. Only this time, nothing had interrupted them and Alex had slid down the zip of her dress and peeled it off her and then his hands had stroked over her skin, before pulling her down with him onto the cushions and—
Agh. Phoebe jumped to her feet, utterly disgusted with her lack of control over something so primitive, and marched into the kitchen.
She needed a cup of coffee. So what if she’d already had five? Number six would sort her out. It had to. Otherwise she’d never last the morning.