‘What? Did you hear someone when you were outside?’
The breath hissed through his teeth. ‘The footsteps were mine, Ella.’ His fingers tightened on hers. ‘I was the one following you.’
She stared at him with incomprehension. ‘You were following me? Why?’
‘Because you are impossibly stubborn and you insist on living in this place in the middle of nowhere!’ His dark gaze burned fiercely into hers. ‘Did you really think I was going to let you cycle home alone? I was held up by a phone call and by the time I’d finished, you’d gone. I wanted to check that you were safe.’
‘It was your footsteps I heard.’
‘I was terrified.’
‘I’m sorry. Obviously the last thing I wanted to do was frighten you. But it does prove that you should not be living here alone,’ he gritted, sliding his free hand into her hair and tilting her face to look at him. ‘It is not a suitable place for a woman. Tonight has proved that.’
‘That isn’t true. It was you all along—’
‘But it might not have been me.’ His tone was edged with roughness. ‘It might not have been me, and then what, Ella? You think a saucepan is going to be sufficient defence against an intruder? What were you going to do? Sauté him with garlic and serve him on a bed of pasta?’
‘I was going to hit him, of course.’ Stung by his sarcasm and increasingly embarrassed by the whole incident, Ella made a desperate attempt to regain some of her pride and dignity. ‘It’s possible that I overreacted,’ she said stiffly, ‘I think it’s hormones or something. I was imagining all sorts of things. I’ll be fine now.’
She just wanted to curl up in a ball and hide.
What a pathetic wimp she was!
What a spineless excuse for a twenty-first-century woman.
She’d made a total fool of herself. How on earth had she worked herself up into such a state?
Calm now in the safety of Nikos’s lap, she glanced around her, wondering what it was about this cosy canal boat that had seemed so terrifying.
‘You’ll be fine? You’re sure?’ Nikos tipped her gently off his lap and onto the seat as he rose to his feet. ‘In that case I will leave you to it. I know how badly you want to stay here on your own, so—’
‘You’re going to leave me?’ Alarmed, disbelieving, Ella looked at him, her heart starting to race again. ‘Y-you’re going?’ Without him there, the canal boat would cease to be cosy. She could feel the menace closing in around her—the dark trees, the glassy surface of the water.
‘You don’t want me here, I understand that. I never intended to come in—I just wanted to see that you arrived home safely.’ His back to her, Nikos dropped into a squat and fiddled with the door. Then he picked up the key, performed some deft manoeuvre that she couldn’t see and then rose to his feet. ‘This lock is fine. It’s not that secure, so miraculously it didn’t actually break when I forced it. You can lock it again after I leave. You might want to sleep with that saucepan by your bed, just in case.’
The lock wasn’t secure?
Fear and pride fought a quick, desperate battle for supremacy.
‘Wait a minute—you can’t leave.’ Fear trampled on pride as she forced the words out. ‘I don’t want you to leave.’
‘You don’t?’ He turned to look at her, his eyes glittering dark. ‘Why?’
She swallowed. ‘Because…I feel better when you’re here.’
‘I thought you liked living alone on the canal,’ he said silkily, his sardonic tone dragging over her nerve endings, ‘I thought this was your idea of blissful independence. I’d hate to get in the way of that.’
His powerful frame almost filled the boat and she knew that her sudden feeling of security came from his presence and nothing else.
If he left…
‘I like having you here.’
One dark eyebrow lifted. ‘As your bodyguard? You want my muscles, yes? My ability to throw a punch?’
The chemistry crackled between them, a powerful force drawing them together in the small, intimate space they both occupied.
Feeling the immediate reaction of her body, Ella felt herself weaken. ‘Not just as my bodyguard.’ Oh, dear God, what was she doing? What was she saying? It must be something to do with the darkness. ‘I—I just don’t want you to go.’