Excerpt

Cruise Control

“ANNA JACKSON?”

Anna swiveled on her heel, turning toward the voice. The woman standing in front of her on the busy Sydney street was dressed in a neat navy suit, her hair perfectly coiffed, her face stretched into an expression of incredulity.

“It is you!”

Anna smiled. She still got a buzz out of people’s reactions to the new her. Especially her old law colleagues.

“Hey, Mary. How are things?”

“You look so different!” Mary said, shaking her head. “I would have walked right past you. I mean, I nearly did.”

“It was time for a change.You know how it is.” Anna shrugged. 

Mary’s hand strayed to her own sensible brown bob as she eyed Anna’s new short and spiky platinum blond haircut. “I haven’t seen you around for ages,” Mary said, fishing for information.

“I quit,” Anna said simply.

“Oh. Wow. I didn’t hear. So which firm did you go to? I know Sullivan and Makepeace were looking for someone in corporate governance….

“Actually, I’ve started up my own business,” Anna said lightly. She glanced toward the gleaming black Mercedes sedan parked behind her. Mary followed her gaze, frowning as she took in the car’s license plates: Lady Driver. “It’s a luxury car service,” Anna explained. “High-end business, that kind of thing.”\

“You mean you’ve quit law?” Mary said. She sounded scandalized, as though Anna had just confessed to running a string of hookers.

“Yep.”

Mary shook her head. “Why on earth would you do that? You’re such a great lawyer, Anna. One of the best. God, I used to sweat buckets when I knew I was coming up against you.”

Anna had gotten used to people not understanding why she’d tossed in her career, but she was surprised at the tug of pride she felt at the other woman’s compliment.

“Really?” It was hard not to feel flattered.

“Hell, yeah. Formidable — that’s how my senior partner once described you,” Mary said admiringly.

The buzz of pride faded. Formidable. Great. Just how she wanted to be remembered.

“I guess I decided that there was more to life than work,” Anna said.

Mary opened her mouth to argue, but maybe she saw something inAnna’s face because she shut it again without saying a word. The look she shot Anna was equal parts confusion and concern.

Anna knew what she was thinking — Mary simply couldn’t understand how anyone could turn her back on a prestigious, lucrative career to become a glorified taxi driver. For a split second Anna considered telling her. But it was her business, her very private business.

Anyway, it wouldn’t take the other woman long to find out why Anna had quit her job and turned her life around. The Sydney law community was big, but not that big. Mary would go back to the oak-lined offices of her firm and ask the right people the right questions, and within an hour she’d know. “Breast cancer,” someone would tell Mary in a hushed tone.“Went off the rails, threw it all in.” 

“Well. I wish you the best of luck,” Mary finally said. “If I know you, you’ll have a fleet of cars within a year.”

Anna just smiled. She couldn’t think of anything she wanted less, but Mary was being kind.

“Thanks. Look after yourself,” Anna said.

Giving her one last, uncertain glance, Mary strode briskly away. No doubt she was heading off to wage a war of words with a sharp-witted foe, Anna guessed. Precedents would be cited, clauses referred to. Veiled threats would be tossed back and forth as the lawyers circled one another. It would be tense and exciting and challenging.

Anna narrowed her eyes to follow Mary’s retreating figure. There had been times in the past five weeks since Lady Driver had gotten off the ground when she’d been assailed with doubts about what she’d done. It was all so new, so different, so scary. But watching Mary walk away, Anna realized that if ever she’d had any doubts about giving up her law career, they’d just evaporated completely. She wouldn’t trade places with the other woman for anything — not even her own string of hookers.

She was still smiling when she turned back to the car. The dark tinted windows reflected her image back at her, and her smile broadened as she took in the striking-looking woman she’d become. First, there was the hair. Annie Lennox, eat your heart out. Then there was the hot pink curve of her lips and the smoky kohl of her eyes — gone were the somber, conservative browns and grays of her old makeup palette, never to be seen again. And instead of the severe, staid style of her previous suits, she now wore a figure-hugging, sexy skirt suit in dark charcoal with a hot pink pinstripe running through it. There was hardly a trace of the old Anna Jackson left, she assured herself. That was why she liked it so much when people from her former life like Mary barely recognized her.    

Sliding into the driver’s seat, Anna put her chauffeur’s cap on.

Knowing she still had ten minutes to kill until her next client, she eased her small leather-bound notebook from the side pocket of the car door and flipped it open to a well-thumbed page. She couldn’t look at the words inscribed there without remembering the setting she’d written them in — the sterile whiteness of the hospital, the muffled clatter of nurses doing their rounds, the all-pervading smell of antiseptic. As always, a wave of fear gripped her as she recalled the hours of waiting and wondering.

But she needed the fear. It kept her honest, kept her nose to the grindstone as she worked to change her life around. Because she’d promised herself that she’d change if she got a second chance. And it was tempting to let things slide, to go easy on herself now that the fear was receding.

She read over the list, even though she didn’t really need prompting to remember the pledges she’d made to herself. Change job — crossed out now. Make over me, also crossed out. The rest of the list was still intact, waiting to be tackled. She frowned down at the page as she ran her eye over point number two again. It wasn’t entirely true, was it? She wasn’t really made over. Not when she considered that she’d barely addressed all the other things on her list. 

Be more impulsive still challenged her. Along with Be adventurous. There was a sublist of things she wanted to try under that one — scuba diving, sky-diving, bungee jumping, motorbike riding, snowboarding. And she hadn’t done a thing about tackling any of them. But nothing on her wish list caused her to swallow nervously and twitch in her seat quite so much as item number five: Need more passion in my life. She’d even underlined it several times, just to highlight to herself how important it was.

And she’d done absolutely nothing about it. It had been a year, and she’d changed her hair, her wardrobe, her makeup, her job. But she kept shying away from the hard stuff. The really life-changing stuff.

The sound of the back passenger door opening interrupted her musings and she twitched the rearview mirror into place just in time to make eye contact with the man who was ducking his head into her car.

“You here to pick up the Lewis party? Sorry, we’re a bit early,” he said. He had a round, friendly face, and Anna found herself smiling at him.

“Not a problem,” she said. Sliding the notebook back into the side pocket, she reached for the door, preparing to usher her clients into the back of the car.    

“It’s fine, stay where you are,” the man assured her.

He turned away to talk to someone outside, then slid into the backseat. A second man followed, but Anna was too busy starting the car to register him immediately.

Then she flicked her eyes up to the rearview mirror, and found herself gazing into eyes so dark they were almost black. No, not black, she swiftly corrected herself — a very dark brown, like rich, bittersweet chocolate. Thick, dark lashes and a strong, straight nose added determination to a face that Anna quickly saw was dangerously attractive. Black hair, high cheekbones, olive skin and the shadow of stubble on his jaw completed the picture. And his mouth — she’d thought the eyes were killer, but the mouth was something else altogether. A chiseled curve, the top lip slightly thinner than the luscious, provocative bottom lip, with the corners turned up as though its owner was always on the verge of laughter.

There was something smoldering and intent and hungry about his gaze as he locked eyes with her in the mirror. A shiver ran down her spine, and she stirred in her seat, suddenly unable to keep still.

“You’ve got the address, right?” the first man asked, and Anna blinked.    

“Yes,” she said, wrenching her eyes forward.

She concentrated on her driving, smoothly pulling out into the traffic. But as she wove her way confidently through the lunchtime rush, a frown creased her forehead as she registered that her heart was beating a little faster. And her palms were damp on the steering wheel. And her breasts felt heavy and full in her bra. It took her a moment to identify the feeling.

She was turned on.

As revelations went, it was a biggy. She only just stopped herself from planting a foot on the brake and bringing the car to a screeching halt. It had been a long time — a looonnngggg time — since she’d felt anything like desire. But surely it took more than a look — a few seconds of eye contact, if she was getting specific — to switch that part of herself back on?

Not once in her life had she ever locked eyes with a strange man and felt the tingle of desire that was even now vibrating its way through her body. This sort of thing didn’t happen to her. All her past relationships had grown out of mutual respect and affection. She was thrown, completely thrown. She felt oddly vulnerable and exposed, too. She flicked her eyes back up to the rearview mirror, trying to make sense of this phenomenon. She felt a strange relief when she saw his dark gaze was fixed intently on something in the front of the car now.

Perhaps she had just imagined that moment of heat when their eyes had locked?

Then she followed his sight line, and saw that her pencil-slim skirt had ridden up and that he was fixated on the lacy top of her stay-up stocking — visible through the side slit of her skirt — along with a good expanse of thigh.

She couldn’t help herself — she pushed her skirt down instantly. When she lifted her gaze to the mirror again, he was watching her, his eyes knowing.

She riveted her attention on the road ahead, swallowing nervously. Oh, boy. She had no idea how to handle this situation. He was obviously interested. What if he asked her out? How would she say no without offending him? How awkward. God, she was hopeless in these kinds of scenarios. This was why she’d always turned to work instead of putting herself out there more.

Tension tightening her belly, Anna glanced at the clock in the dash. Five more minutes, and they’d be at their destination and he’d be gone. She just had to endure five more minutes….

Then she remembered her list.

Hadn’t she just been sitting here, worrying over how to get more passion into her life? And wasn’t there a bona fide sex god in the back of her car right now — and she was worrying over how to get rid of him? She took a deep, unsettled breath. This was what she’d just admitted to herself, wasn’t it — she’d changed the easy stuff, but now that the going was getting tough, she was balking.

She snuck another peek at him. He was the kind of man she’d only ever stared at in expensive restaurants — sexy, powerful, confident. He looked as though he knew his way around the bedroom. In fact, he looked as though he’d written the book on passion, then banged out a couple of sequels for good measure.

Her mind began to race. If she was being true to her undertaking to change her world around, she would do something about this. She’d ask him out. Or do whatever it was that women did to get men to ask them out.

She felt like a born-again virgin, uncertain and awkward and completely clueless. And, if she were being completely honest with herself, excited. Because he was hot. He was definitely hot.

Oh-boy-oh-boy. Could she do this? Could she really do this? She felt as though she was standing on the edge of a precipice, preparing to take a dive into the unknown. The ring of a phone broke into her hectic thoughts. She watched in the mirror as Mr. Sexy flipped his cell phone open with a smooth wrist action. He had nice hands, she noted, with long, strong-looking fingers. Her stomach clenched as she imagined him touching her. Stroking her hot skin. Tracing the curve of her —

She shook her head, amazed at how quickly her thoughts had gotten out of control. She’d never responded to a man like this. Ever.

“Yes, Sally?” he said into the phone.

It was the first time he’d spoken. His voice was deep and low, a perfect match for the rest of him. Something else to add to the erotic fantasy that was rapidly taking shape in her subconscious.

“I’m sorry, but it’s out of the question,” he said into the phone. She saw that he was frowning, his gaze focused on the paperwork he’d pulled out of his briefcase. “I need you to help with the bid presentations.”

There was an implacable note to his voice that caught her attention. Eyes fixed on the road ahead, she frowned.

He sighed heavily, obviously frustrated with what he was hearing from his caller.

“Let me ask you one question, Sally – are you committed to this job or not? Because we discussed the issue of work hours before you started, if I remember correctly,” he said.

His tone was hard and cold, and Anna felt her lip curling into an instinctive snarl. What a jerk.

Instantly she remembered the difficult weeks when she’d just gotten home from the hospital. She’d been wrestling with so many things during that time – and the senior partners at her law firm had called her at separate times to consult on cases. One by one, they’d all hedged their way around to asking her to cut short her sick leave and come back to work. She’d come back – but only to wind up her most pressing cases and hand in her resignation. It had taken several months to extract herself from her partnership, but finally she’d walked away from it all. Now the memory of their lack of consideration – their lack of humanity – lit a renewed fire of anger in her belly. They’d been so callous, so unfeeling. And she’d almost wasted her life working alongside them.

And now this… jerk in the back of her car was bullying one of his employees in much the same way. She had to bite her tongue to stop herself from saying something. Instead, she ground her teeth together and settled for braking late at a red light, bringing the car to an abrupt halt and jostling her passengers . He glanced up, annoyed at the less-than-smooth ride. Anna eyed him coldly in the rear view mirror.

“Sorry,” she said, her tone implying she was anything but.

He ended his call, and she studied his face briefly in the rear view mirror before accelerating away from the intersection. Not by the flicker of an eyelid did he look remotely guilty or uncomfortable about what he’d just done.

The initial desire she’d felt when she looked at him curdled into disdain now that she saw him for the arrogant business bully he was. So what if he had broad shoulders and sexy bedroom eyes? He had no soul, and he was happy to suck the joy out of other people’s lives. Her world had once been filled with people like him. But not any more.

Her hands firmed on the steering wheel. The sooner this trip was over, the better, list or no list. For a few crazy moments there she’d let herself get swept up in Mr Arrogant’s superficial charm, but now she saw him for what he was. Once he was gone, she would wind down the windows and clear his woody aftershave from her car, and just as easily flush away her body’s aberrant reaction to him.

Relief washed through her, and she told herself it was just because she’d soon be rid of a man she’d swiftly decided she didn’t like. And – maybe – she was just a teensy bit relieved that she didn’t have to push herself out of her sexual comfort zone and acknowledge the zing of attraction between the two of them. It was all so much easier and more manageable now she knew he was a jerk.

She should probably be disappointed in herself, she knew. But he’d let her off the hook with his boorish behaviour. Another day, with another man, she’d be braver, bolder, she promised herself.

For now, she just wanted to get the slave driver out of her car. Her lips pressed into a determined line, she eased her foot down on the accelerator

Marc stared absently at the blur of traffic and buildings outside the car, wishing he could dismiss his niece’s phone call from his mind as easily as he’d extracted himself from the call itself. Sally was just eighteen, and supposedly keen to find a place in his business and start her working life, rather than slog her way through three years of university. He wasn’t opposed to her ambition – in fact, he admired it – but he expected her to earn her place on his team. He’d built his computer solutions business up from nothing, and he’d never let anyone take a free ride. The truth was, he was disappointed that Sally thought she could skite off early from work to go skiing for the weekend just because she was related to the managing director. She was a good kid, but they were in for a bumpy ride if this was a sign of things to come.

Without him consciously willing it, his gaze wandered back to the front seat of the car. More specifically, to the legs of the woman behind the wheel. Clearly, despite the fact that he’d already told himself he wasn’t interested, subconsciously he was hoping for another glimpse of the expanse of lace and leg that had been so abruptly withdrawn from display. He frowned, wrenching his eyes away. Tara’s betrayal had burnt him badly, and the last thing he needed or wanted was to be attracted to someone.

Ten years of marriage, flushed away. He couldn’t think about it without feeling a surge of bitterness. He’d been so determined to make his marriage work. He’d dedicated his life to building the security they needed before they started a family. And just when everything had come to fruition, he’d walked in on Tara and John… More fool him for catching an early flight home to spend more time with his wife.

But despite his best intentions, despite having every reason in the world not to, his gaze kept sliding back toward the front of the car.

She was focussed on the road, and he studied her face in profile. Her hair was hidden beneath a traditional chauffer’s hat, but she had a small, straight nose, sloping cheekbones, and a full, hot pink mouth that promised almost as much as those legs. Her driver ID was displayed on the dashboard, and he saw her name was Anna Jackson.

I wonder if you’re as hot as that look you gave me, Anna?

Then he remembered the way she’d pulled her skirt down, and how her eyes had reprimanded him for looking in the first place.

He wasn’t in the mood to play games. If she hoped to intrigue him or excite him with a pretence at being coy, she could think again – he wasn’t in the market.

Registering the tightness in his trousers, he corrected himself – okay, maybe he was in the market, but not for the sort of cat-and-mouse courtship Anna-the-chauffeur seemed to be offering with her come-hither eyes and her stay-away skirt tweak. Now, if she was to offer him one hot night, no holds barred, no strings attached… That was about his speed right now.

“Marc, have you been listening to a word I’ve said?” Gary said beside him, and Marc realised that the background drone he’d been tuning out had been his friend debriefing after their recent meeting.

“I’m with you,” he said, tearing his eyes away from her.

“So are we still going ahead with the offer?” Gary asked.

“Yep,” Marc said.

Gary looked baffled. “Even after all the stuff they just revealed about their expected losses for this financial year?”

Marc smiled, his razor-sharp mind winging back to the meeting they’d just completed. The executives of Sum Systems had given every appearance of being frank and earnest when they revealed the parlous state of the company’s finances. Apparently their little routine had even been good enough to convince Gary.

“Have you ever walked into a business and been granted full access to the books like that?” Marc asked, idly smoothing a hand over the car’s supple leather upholstery.

Gary opened his mouth to speak, paused, then suddenly broke into a smile.

“Right. I see,” he nodded. “They’re trying to put us off.”

“Oh yeah. Just a little,” Marc agreed.

“But we’re not going to be put off,” Gary said.

“Correct,” Marc confirmed.

Gary nodded again, then fell into silence. Marc used the opportunity to glance back at the driver. Despite himself, he was intrigued. She kept her gaze firmly pinned on the road, but he could tell she was aware of him. A sudden urge gripped him, and he leaned forward in his seat.

“It’s okay, I’m not going to take you up on your offer,” he said in her ear.

He watched in the rear view mirror as her toffee-brown eyes widened with shock.

“I beg your pardon?” she asked, her tone chilly.

“You heard me. You’re off the hook,” he said, enjoying the flush of colour that ran up her cheeks.

Her eyes flashed at him in the mirror, and he was aware of Gary staring at him, mouth agape.

Her mouth firmed, and he saw a muscle pulse in her jaw. Then she flicked the indicator on, and pulled the car over. For a second he thought she was about to kick him out of the car – then he realised that they’d arrived at his company headquarters. He checked his watch, impressed. She’d gotten him from downtown George Street, across the Sydney harbour bridge and into the north shore in under ten minutes.

“Nice timing,” he said dryly.

“I thought so,” she said before opening her door and sliding out of the car.

Gary shifted uncomfortably beside him. “Do you know her?” he hissed furtively.

Marc didn’t bother responding; his attention was all on the woman who was even now moving to open Gary’s door. She was dressed in a discreet grey pinstripe skirt, slim-line, with a matching fitted jacket. The fabric clung to her curves as she walked, and he saw that the rest of her body more than lived up to the promise made by that flash of thigh earlier. She was a very sexy woman. Full breasted, if he was any judge, with real curves, not all ribs and hips like the half-starved women in his social circle.

Feeling his body tightening once more, Marc realised that he was fixating on Anna Jackson again. Hadn’t he just decided he wasn’t in the market for anything? It disturbed him that in the space of a ten minute car ride, their sexy lady driver had managed to almost completely dominate his thoughts.

This is not going to happen, he decided abruptly. He didn’t need this kind of complication in his life, no matter how hot the package it came wrapped in. Wanting someone, desiring them, was dangerously close to needing them. Depending on them. And he’d just learned the hard way that there was no such thing as loyalty, trust or honour between men and women. He wasn’t prepared to make the same mistake twice. There were plenty of other women out there who could scratch a physical itch, all of them much safer bets than a woman who for whatever reason seemed to hold some fascination for him.

Fascination he did not need. His life, his world, was all about control. And he wasn’t about to change it for a luscious mouth and sexy thighs.

Despite the fact that she was circling back around to open his door, he beat her to it, pushing it open and surging out of the car. Not bothering to look at her – proving to himself that he didn’t need to, or even want to – Marc strode towards the entrance of his company headquarters.

And that, he thought to himself, is the end of that.

It was almost four o’clock before she found the wallet. Many of her passengers brought newspapers or magazines with them, along with take-away coffees, and the odds were good that they would leave them behind when they exited at the end of their trip. In the five weeks she’d been in business, Anna had formed the habit of checking on the rear of the car after each client to ensure it was at its best for her next passengers. But the wallet had wedged itself between the door and the seat cushion, which explained why she hadn’t spotted it earlier.

Made from the softest black leather, the wallet was slim-line and very expensive-looking. Just holding it in her hand gave her an odd feeling of prescience, and when she opened it to check for ID she wasn’t really surprised to learn that it belonged to Marc Lewis, he of the slave-driving ethos and burning bedroom eyes.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” she muttered to herself, studying his driver’s licence photo. She looked like a surprised frog in hers; he, of course, looked sleek and sexy. Typical.

Sighing, Anna checked her job sheet for contact details, and pulled out her mobile phone. A feminine voice answered on the second ring.

“Lewis Technologies.”

“This is Anna Jackson calling from the car service that Mr Lewis booked this afternoon. I’m ringing to let you know he left his wallet in my car,” Anna said briskly.

She opened her mouth to explain that she would drop it off when she was scheduled to be in the north shore again, but after a second she became aware that she was talking to thin air. She was about to redial when a male voice sounded in her ear.

“I understand you have my wallet.”

It was him. The deep husk of his voice made her shiver. What was it about this man that got to her so badly? She cleared her throat.

“Yes, that’s right. I’ll be on the north shore again this afternoon- ” she said, but he cut across her impatiently.

“No good. I’m heading out to Manly now,” he said, naming a suburb way across town.

“Well, I’ll just leave it at reception in your building for you,” she said tartly, her hackles rising all over again at his high-handed attitude.

“I need it this evening, I’ve got an important dinner at the opera house,” he said. He was clearly annoyed. Which made two of them.

“Don’t you have a lackey who can run your wallet to you, Mr Lewis? I really don’t have the time to be chasing you across town,” she said coolly. Ten years of practicing law had given her a killer business voice, and she used it to full effect.

“My lackeys, as you call them, are all busy doing their jobs. Your job, I understand, is to drive people places. What would it take to get you to bring my wallet to me at the opera house at seven this evening?”

Her first impulse was to name a ridiculous sum to penalise him for his unending egotism. But then she remembered that she was the owner of a fledgling small business.

Sighing, she slid her cap off and ran her hand through her short, spiky hair.

“What’s on at the opera?” she asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Are they still performing Carmen?”

There was long silence, then she heard him talking to someone else. “Carmen’s still running,” he finally confirmed.

“I’ll meet you on the steps at seven,” she said crisply, making a snap decision.

Carmen was one of her favourite operas, and part of her promise to herself in her new life was to be more spontaneous.

“Bill the company for your time,” he said dismissively.

“Steps at seven,” she repeated, then ended the call before she was tempted to tell him she’d thrown his wallet in the harbour.

Why did he annoy her so much? He was just a typical, run of the mill successful businessman – used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. She bet he was rude to waitresses, and that he treated his staff like disposable machines.

But you still think he’s sexy, the honest little voice in her head chimed in. She shied away from the thought, not wanting to go there.

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