The Playboy of Argentina(3)

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No one was paying her any attention. She didn’t blame them. Small and slight and unremarkable, she tended to pass under most people’s radar. Unlike the polo scene groupies, who were just like the ponies—all perfect teeth, lean bodies and long legs. Treated as a boy until she’d realised herself that being a girl was a lot more fun, she’d run with her brothers, ridden the horses and wandered wild and free all over the farm. Until the day that she had flown out of the stables to hunt for her brothers and run straight into Rocco Hermida.

She would never forget that moment.

Rounding the corner, she’d seen him, blazing like sunshine after thunder in the shadows of the muddy lane. He’d stood and stared. She’d slammed to a stop and gawped at him. She had never seen anything more brilliant, more handsome, more menacing. He’d looked her over, taken his time. Then he’d turned back to Mark and Danny and wandered away, rattling off questions in his heavily accented English, turning her life on its head, oblivious.

Now he was responsible for this world-class string of ponies, his world-class genetics programme and a whole host of other businesses. But polo was his passion. Everyone knew that. And the giant horse transporter with ‘Hermanos Hermida’ on it, parked at the rear of the campo and drawing her closer, was an emblem of how much care he put into his ponies.

It was immaculate. A haven. Ponies were hosed down, dried off and resting in their stalls. Gleaming and proud. She walked amongst them, breathing in their satisfied air. Where were her girls? She was so keen to see the mix of thoroughbred and Argentinian pony, trained to world-class perfection. She knew she’d recognise Ipanema’s progeny—the ponies he’d kept on the string were her living image. She felt sure she would feel some kind of connection with them.

‘Que estas haciendo aqui?’

Right behind her. Frankie started at the quiet growl. Her stomach twisted. Her whole body froze.

‘Did you hear me? I said, what are you doing?’

Words stuck, she willed herself calm. ‘Just looking,’ she finally managed.

‘Turn round.’

She would not—could not.

‘I said, turn round.’

If she’d been in the heart of an electric storm she couldn’t have felt more charged. The voice she hadn’t heard for years was as familiar as if he had just growled those unforgettable words, ‘You are too young—get out of here!’

A pony turned its head and stared at her with a huge brown eye. Her heart thunder-pulsed in her chest. Her legs felt weak. But from somewhere she found a spark of strength. He might be the most imposing man she had ever known, but she was her own woman now—not a little girl. And she wouldn’t let herself down again.

She turned. She faced him. She tilted up her chin.

He stared, took a pace towards her. Her heel twitched back despite herself.

‘I knew it was you.’

She forced her eyes to his even as the low growl in his voice twisted around her.

He was still in his playing clothes, his face flushed with effort and sweat, his hair mussed and tousled. Alive and vital and male. She could hardly find the strength to stand facing him, eyeing him, but she was determined to hold her own in the face of all that man.

‘I came to see Ipanema’s mares.’

Her words were stifled and flat in the perfectly climate-controlled air. Another pony stamped and turned its head.

‘You came to see me.’

Her eyes widened in shock and she spluttered a laugh. ‘Are you joking?’

He stepped back from her, tilted his head as if she was a specimen at some livestock market and he might, just might, be tempted.

He raised an eyebrow. Shook his head—the slightest movement. ‘No.’

He was appalling, arrogant—outrageous in his ego.

‘Look, think what you like—and I’m sorry I didn’t ask permission to come to a charity match—but, really? Come to see you? When I was sixteen I had more than my fill of you.’

A rush of something dangerous, wicked and wondrous flashed over his eyes and he closed the gap between them in a single step. His fingers landed on her shoulder, strong, warm and instantly inflaming. He didn’t pull her towards him. He didn’t need to. She felt as if she was flush against him, and her body sang with delight.

‘You didn’t get your fill—not at all.’ He curled his lip for a moment. ‘But you wanted to.’

The coal-black eyes were trained right on her and she knew if she opened her mouth it would be to whimper. She clamped it shut. She would stare him out and then get the hell away from him.

But his hand moved from her shoulder, spread its warming brand up her neck.

‘Frankie … Little Frankie.’

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