I had only pulled up in the lay-by to refill the empty washer bottle, but like a true knight in shining armour, on spotting my apparently broken-down vehicle he'd stopped to see if I needed any help.
Laughing over the misunderstanding, he'd promptly asked me out. Then, without waiting for an answer, he'd given me his name and number, leapt back into the sleek gold Capri, and with a brisk wave was gone.
I wasn't sure at the time whether to be gratified at the obvious interest or annoyed with the casual assumption that I'd go out with just anyone - he certainly seemed arrogant. I'd wondered how many girls he picked up in the course of a week.
It had been two days before I called Ray. Mainly because I was busy - or at least I should have been, but much of the time that should have been spent concentrating on my work was instead applied to the memory of a pair of laughing green eyes and a mischievous grin.
Even as I lifted the phone I was telling myself to keep it simple and just go for a friendly drink, but it was inevitable that he took me home, and had to come up for coffee.
Notwithstanding that I didn't usually jump into bed on the first date we came pretty close that evening, Ray only dragging himself away when he got some kind of signal from a bleeper in his pocket.
The brief conversation where he had carefully managed not to tell me what he did had already piqued my curiosity, and the mysterious summons by bleeper only increased it. When he called me the next morning with an invite to dinner, I accepted.
Ray was wonderful to be with, a good listener as well as a conversationalist. The only thing he was reticent over was his job; admitting to being a sort of policeman but refusing to say any more. Although he did guarantee we wouldn't have any interruptions that night, since he was off-duty. I'd find out that being off-duty didn't always mean off-duty, however.
But that first evening had been amazing. Ray somehow had the knack of looking at me like he was slowly stripping my clothes off, and he did it disconcertingly throughout dinner; those green eyes twinkling at me with an attempt at an innocent stare.
There had been no question of him not staying the night. I'd practically dragged him into my flat, and was ripping his clothes off, forgetting the coffee he'd ostensibly come up for.
It was a long, exhausting night...
The first cancelled date came only two days later and I'd demanded a reasonable explanation, finally learning he worked for CI5, an organisation I'd heard of a few times in connection with terrorists and shootouts.
And the following evening had been my first experience of the 'never really off-duty' situation, when a call came in to his radio while we were in the car. I didn't understand all of the message, but what it meant for our evening was clear enough when Ray swore, frowning as he pulled over to the kerb.
"Damn." He looked at me, genuine regret in his eyes. "Sorry, darlin'. Duty calls. I'll drop you back home..."
I could see him calculating how long that would take. "Is it urgent?" I assumed it probably would be otherwise they wouldn't be calling him in the first place.
I gathered up my bag and flicked open the door. "Then I'll get a taxi. Call me."
Looking astounded, he'd taken me at my word, zipping away through the traffic in the Capri.
And he had called me, as well. Although not until the following evening, and then only to apologise that he would probably be busy for a week or so, and not to think he'd forgotten me if he didn't ring.
I have to admit that when he hadn't called nearly two weeks later I was beginning to think I'd been dumped, but it was only a casual relationship. We hadn't exactly declared undying love for each other.
When it came, the phone call took me by surprise.
"You remembered my number, then."
"How could I fail to? Emblazoned on my memory, it is." The bantering tone was the same, but there was an edge to his voice.
"Is everything all right?"
"Actually - I was wondering if I could stay with you for a couple of nights."
He wanted to move in? Now I was thrown. "Well..."
"Can I come over? I'll explain when I see you."
I couldn't resist the appeal in his voice, and besides, curiosity was getting the better of me again. "OK. Are you hungry? I can make something."
"I'm starvin'." That sounded more like Ray. "Uh... can you make enough for three?"
"My partner. He'll bring me over."
"Three it is." I'd put the phone down before I began wondering why Ray's partner had to bring him - why didn't Ray drive himself?
I'd find out soon enough. I headed for the kitchen to start mixing a pasta sauce.
Ray was propped against the wall when I opened the door; eyes half-closed, face grey with exhaustion. Beside him was another man, presumably his partner, who was regarding Ray with concern. "C'mon, sunshine."
Levering himself upright Ray brushed aside any attempt his partner might have made to help him. "I'm OK, Bodie."
As he limped into the flat I could see a bruise at his temple, and waited only until he collapsed onto my sofa. "What happened?"
His partner answered for him. "He's been undercover. No chance to sleep. And when we moved in, he got himself beaten up." His tone was irritated, but it was clear even to me that he was trying to conceal his worry.
"Do you need anything, Ray?" Eyes closed, Ray merely shook his head, and I headed for the kitchen, his partner close behind me.
Lighting the gas under the water for the pasta, I turned to his partner. "So, Bodie, was it? What's really happened to Ray?"
He shrugged. "Like I said. He's shattered."
"Is he OK, though? I'm not a nurse."
"Slight risk of concussion, the doc said. But it's nothing he's not had before; he'll deal with it."
Bodie's eyes narrowed shrewdly at my direct question. "He needs a place to stay where he's going to be safe for a couple of days; his flat may have been compromised."
I let the implications of that sink in whilst fussing with the packet of pasta. I'd known Ray less than four weeks and only seen him on about three separate occasions, so unless someone had been following him they wouldn't know about me.
Bodie seemed to read my mind. "Ray hadn't even told me about you. Normally he wouldn't involve his girlfriends - but he had a feeling you'd be OK with this."
"Not flop about and scream hysterically, you mean?" That was true. I've never seen the need for behaving like a Victorian heroine. I shot spaghetti into the boiling water and turned back to face him.
"That you'd be pragmatic, and cope." Bodie was regarding me keenly. "And he's right, isn't he."
I opened the fridge and pulled out a couple of cans. "Have a beer while I finish cooking. Unless Ray shouldn't drink?"
"Try stopping him." With a grin, Bodie took the cans and vanished, and I collected three plates from the cupboard.
The other thing to occur to me while I swirled pasta on plates was why didn't Ray stay with Bodie? Unless his place had been 'compromised' as well. I had to say, it didn't give you a lot of faith in our secret service.
Bodie was throwing casual banter at Ray when I carried the meal in; he wasn't getting a lot of response but I could see that didn't bother him.
Ray roused and accepted the plate with alacrity, tucking in and finishing his portion long before either his partner or myself, before stretching back out on the sofa, beer can in hand. "That's better. Belly thought me throat'd been cut..."
"It damn near was."
I paused in the middle of scooping up another forkful; catching the seriousness of Bodie's comment and the look that passed between them. For a long moment I was excluded before Ray threw a careless smile at me. "Don't listen to him. Bodie just likes to think he's the Seventh Cavalry."
"Sounds like someone was after your scalp though."
"They were." Another glare from Ray silenced Bodie, and I let it go. That it had been dangerous I didn't doubt, but I was far enough removed not to let it worry me.
"I suppose you'd like to watch the football?" Both brightened at the thought; Bodie eagerly hastening to put the telly on.
I wondered how long Ray would manage to stay awake, and by the time I'd finished washing-up and returned to the lounge he was already snoring gently. I rescued the still half-full can of beer from his inert fingers before it dropped to the floor, and smiled at Bodie who, despite his enthusiasm for watching the football, had reduced the sound so that it didn't disturb his partner.
"How long will Ray be here?"
"Two-three days. We're watching his flat, if anyone tries anything we'll pick them up."
"Didn't you arrest whoever it was earlier?"
"Doyle's been infiltrating this gang for a few weeks; we know there are more than just the few we grabbed tonight. We were aiming to keep him under for a while, but someone recognised Ray - you know he used to be a copper?"
"I assumed you all did."
That drew a horrified laugh. "Not me. My background's military. CI5 gets the pick of the forces; Cowley sees to that."
"Cowley. That would be your boss, the one Ray calls the Cow?"
"That's him. Hard but fair - most of the time."
We hadn't had much time together and talking about work wasn't high on our priority list, but Ray had mentioned his boss and that was the impression I'd got. Ray had also mentioned Bodie but almost in passing; as though his partner was someone he only worked with occasionally and he had no real connection with.
I wondered why he'd deliberately misled me; it was obvious that this pair worked very closely together. I'd have to ask him.
The football highlights over, Bodie stood up. "I should go. Are you going to leave Sleeping Beauty there?"
"If I can't wake him." Ray was showing no signs of stirring. "Bodie - I know you both think it's safe, but who should I call, if I need someone?"
Bodie headed for the notepad by the phone. "I'll give you some numbers. Can't think you'll need them, but still..."
"Better safe than sorry."
I shut the door behind Bodie and turned to find Ray sitting up, blinking in confusion.
"That I don't have to wake you." I held out my hand to him. "Come on, you'll be more comfy in bed."
I helped him slip his shirt off, suppressing any comment on the already-visible marks which were obviously making themselves felt. As Ray sat on the bed and bent to unlace his shoes, he caught his breath in a hiss of pain and straightened up again, clutching his ribs.
"Let me." Wouldn't be the first time I've had to put a man to bed, although usually they were incapable through drink and a lot less cooperative. I tossed the socks after the shoes, and Ray caught my hands to pull me up and kiss me.
I pushed him back on the bed. "And you're in no fit state for anything." Grinning as he tried to wriggle out of the skin-tight jeans whilst lying flat, I helpfully caught hold of the hems and tugged, gazing appreciatively as the rest of his body was revealed.
Oh well. There was always tomorrow. I threw the covers over him. "Sleep," I ordered, whilst stripping to join him.
I was busy at work by the time he woke the next morning, but was glad of the opportunity for a break as I heard him open the bedroom door.
Ray had donned his jeans but was bare-chested; parts of his skin an interesting rainbow of mottled red, purple and yellow. He grimaced at my stare. "Pretty it ain't."
I laughed. "Actually I was thinking you looked like Fatty."
"What?" He was bemused and not a little affronted.
"Frederick Algernon Trotteville." It drew another blank look, and I hastened to explain. "Didn't you read Enid Blyton when you were young?"
The explanation didn't appear to make it clear to him. "Some... A few of the Famous Five adventures."
"Fatty was a character in The Five Find-Outers and Dog. If he ever had a fall or was hit he would get the most amazing bruises, all colours and shapes..."
He glanced down ruefully. "I think mine are fist-shaped."
I gave up on childhood reminiscence. "Coffee?"
"Now you're making sense."
Since he was still looking wobbly I had expected to find him taking it easy on the sofa, but when I returned he was looking over the proofs I'd been working on.
"I used to know someone who worked for a publisher. Moved to their New York office." His voice was tinged with regret.
"I don't have such lofty ambitions. I just enjoy getting the final product out. But it's a good job and I get to work at home when I want which is useful when I have guests, especially unexpected ones."
"Yeah, I'm sorry about this. Just needed somewhere in a hurry where I wouldn't be found."
"It's OK. Bodie explained. How do you two get on?"
I'd obviously surprised him with the apparently unrelated question; his reply suspicious. "Fine. Why?"
"You've barely mentioned him to me - I've heard more about your boss. Bodie was pretty concerned about you last night."
"He should know better. It's nothing time won't fix."
"But you do work closely together?"
"Too closely, sometimes. We're in each other pockets almost every day; gets a bit much. Besides, you might have wanted to meet him."
"Why shouldn't I? He seems house-trained."
"He's also incorrigible. The fact that you're going out with me wouldn't put him off." A thought occurred to Ray and he straightened up, not without wincing. "He didn't try it on, did he?"
"No, he didn't. Anyway, that doesn't mean I have to respond." The thought flitted across my mind that if I'd met Bodie first things might be different, but I'd been out with his type before. He would be full of himself, absolutely confident in his good looks and ability to pull girls. I'd had enough of that.
Ray was so similar, and yet unique. He was good-looking; maybe not classically so, but I had no complaints about the way nature had put him together. He was modest; he had his charms but didn't expect them to work automatically on every woman he passed. When he set out to seduce however, there would be few women who would resist him...
He was grinning at me. "I have to be careful where Bodie is concerned. Give him an inch and he takes several hundred miles."
"And your girlfriends?"
"Sometimes." He shrugged. "He's never broken my heart yet."
Catching the beginning of a smirk as I wilfully misinterpreted his words, he swiftly retracted. "Not like that. I meant, he's never swiped anyone I really cared about."
"I was starting to wonder..."
He set down his coffee mug and crowded me into the corner of the sofa. "I'll just have to set your mind at rest then..."
It wasn't hard having Ray around; he was good company, and could cook.
Bodie had turned up that evening with a bottle and news from the office to keep Ray up to date. Concentrating on my work I left them to it, but couldn't help overhearing a good deal of what they discussed.
It was extremely enlightening. Their conversations were casual but revealed far more than they probably should to an outsider, and I unashamedly eavesdropped as they chatted about the security procedures for a forthcoming conference, and how they were going to track down the rest of the gang Ray had been after.
I knew they both carried guns - Ray's was at that moment residing in the drawer beside my bed - and although I didn't wear rose-coloured spectacles and knew it was a dangerous profession, it all sounded a bit like one of the thrillers I read for light relief.
Although Ray was very much better by the following day - at least, if his performance in bed was anything to go by - he'd been given a further day to recover. Ray had laughed when I'd commented on his considerate boss. "Cowley doesn't care how I am. He just doesn't want me being a liability if I'm not fit. Anyway, it's quiet at the moment. If hell were breaking loose he'd have me in."
Sure enough, that afternoon Bodie telephoned him with both good and bad news. "They've picked up someone breaking into my flat. Means I can go home. And Cowley thinks I've been sitting on my backside long enough, to paraphrase Bodie, and he's on the way over to pick me up..."
An hour later he was gone, with a brief kiss for me and promises to call. It was interesting to see, when it was so dangerous, how much he loved his job. He and Bodie were obviously dedicated...
I saw him every couple of days over the next few weeks. I wasn't na´ve enough to think the situation would persist beyond the next emergency or undercover job, nor that it held any special significance for our relationship. Ray simply enjoyed having someone around who took pleasure from the same things.
We double-dated with Bodie a couple of times. I wasn't surprised when he turned up with a different girl on each occasion - there wasn't much about Bodie to suggest that the words 'long-term' or 'exclusive' featured often in his relationships.
It also gave me another perspective to Ray as I was amused to see that he set out to charm Bodie's girls; obviously a form of retaliation, since Bodie clearly regarded me as fair game.
Arriving back at Ray's flat after a meal one evening we were halfway up the last flight of stairs when he suddenly shushed me. "I can hear something."
"What?" I was alarmed by the automatic way he had immediately reached for his gun.
"Dunno. Sounds from my flat." He fished out and passed me the car keys. "Go back down to the car. Use the radio to call for help."
I went. I wasn't happy about leaving him but I'd known him long enough to know he wouldn't retreat, and the most sensible thing I could do was get help for him.
Ray hadn't actually shown me how to use the radio but I'd watched him a few times; it was hardly rocket science. "Hello? I'm calling from Ray Doyle's flat. There's an intruder. He needs help."
There was a brief silence before I heard a response. "Who is that, please?"
"Denise. I'm Ray's girlfriend."
I was immensely relieved when the next voice I heard was Bodie's. "Denise, I'm on my way. Five-ten minutes at most. Where's Ray?"
There was no further response, and I decided that even with Bodie on the way I was going back up to Ray.
I hesitated on the landing but couldn't hear a thing, at which point worry overrode common sense and I tore up the stairs shouting to Ray. The front door stood open and I ran into the lounge without a second thought.
Ray was standing motionless; the youth standing next to him had a knife at his throat and I felt the blood drain from my face. A small, cold circle of metal was pressed against my neck, and I froze.
I could read Ray's expression: a mixture of anger, worry - and exasperation. If we got out of this, I would have to have a good reason for why I hadn't stayed in the car...
"So who's this?"
Ray obviously wasn't going to answer them. My mouth was too dry, but I swallowed instinctively.
The youth holding the gun had moved forward into my range of vision; he was older than the one next to Ray, but they had to be brothers. He ran his eyes appreciatively over me. "Cat got your tongue?"
"No..." I swallowed again, not liking the way his eyes were lingering. "I'm -"
"She's a neighbour." Ray's interruption made me blink in surprise; why was he disowning me?
"Helpful, nosey neighbours." The youth jerked both his head and the gun. "Bedroom."
Ray was doing his best not to show any concern as we were herded together; I knew what he could only hope for, that help was on the way.
The youth with the gun handed it to his brother, reaching for me and catching at my blouse. I pulled away. "Don't ruin it. This cost me a fortune."
He laughed. "Take it off then."
Avoiding Ray's eyes I began to unbutton it, slowly, and the youth growled at me. "You're not doing a striptease. Take it off!"
I knew I had their full attention as I tossed the blouse aside to reveal the amazingly lacy creation that had cost far more than the blouse. I swear I even saw a flicker of regret in Ray's eyes that the evening hadn't finished differently, and almost laughed.
A hand flat against my stomach shoved me back on the bed, winding me slightly, and I threw my hands up against his chest as the youth straddled me. "Take it easy."
"I take it any way I can get it, darlin'."
Not with me, you don't... I could just see Ray; saw his eyes flicker towards the front door... Praying I had the timing right, I pulled the manoeuvre I hadn't used in years, the one I'd perfected wrestling with my brother years ago.
Wrapping my right ankle around his left, I pulled inwards whilst hauling upwards and right on his jacket. It worked like a dream; he sailed over my head and I rolled sideways off the bed to drop into the space between bed and wardrobe. I caught sight of Ray making his move and the half-closed door flying open, reassuring me that Bodie had arrived and Ray had help. I tucked my head down and waited until the sounds of combat ceased.
It was Ray who picked me up. I'm not normally given to girly moments of clinging to a manly chest, but it was wonderfully comforting since my heart and pulse were still pounding.
A few minutes was more than enough, and I settled myself firmly back on my feet. "I'm fine."
"Sure?" It was amusing to see how worried he was, although I supposed it stemmed from Ray knowing how much more serious it could have been.
I shivered slightly, and not just from the cold. "Pass my blouse."
He hurried to oblige, and fortunately I'd just finished fastening it when Bodie appeared; there were already too many men who'd seen what had only been intended for Ray.
"On their way to HQ. You two OK?"
"I could do with a drink..."
The lounge had been comprehensively turned upside down, and Bodie straightened up the furniture whilst Ray poured drinks, and we all sipped in silence, broken only by Ray's hiss as the alcohol burned into his split lip. It looked as though his collection of bruises, which had only just disappeared, would be back with a vengeance.
"So, who are they?" A glance between them, then I got a pair of looks which expressed doubt that I needed to know, but I had a right to know...
"The Manley boys; Tommy and Greg. They're part of the gang I was infiltrating a few weeks back. I thought they'd forgotten about me, but Coster obviously has a long memory."
Manley, Coster. I mentally filed the names away for future reference. "Why did you tell them I was your neighbour?"
"If they thought you were my neighbour just blundering in, then you wouldn't have called for help. And... I thought it might make them lay off you. If they thought I cared about you..."
They'd probably treat me worse. So either they hadn't been fooled, or the Manley boys treated all women like that, regardless.
I finished my drink. "Could you take me home, please?"
Another one of those exchanged glances. "Cowley's on his way," Bodie muttered.
"Your boss? I don't need to wait for him, do I?" As I was prepared to argue my point, it was probably just as well that Mr Cowley arrived at that moment.
"Lads." He glanced around the flat swiftly, probably taking in all the damage but without appearing to. His gaze stopped at me. "Miss Owen, I'm sorry you've been caught up in this. Although thanks are obviously due to you, for calling us in."
"That's OK." I wasn't very comfortable under his scrutiny; his eyes seemed to pierce straight through me. "But I'd really like to go home now."
"I'm not sure you should be alone. Do you have somewhere else to go - a relative?"
"I'll be fine." I was conscious of the brittle tone my voice had taken on - but honestly, these men! I'd been looking after myself for years now, did they think I couldn't cope with one little scare?
Ray read the signs correctly - it wasn't the first time he'd been forced to back off when he'd got over-protective - and intervened. "Denise is OK. I'll take her home."
I had refused to let him come beyond the door of my flat; bolting it behind me, I had moved to the window to watch Ray leaving. I knew he was concerned; he'd be on the phone later.
Trying to stop myself from trembling, I poured a drink. Yes, I was shaken - anyone would be.
Maybe I'd better do what Mr Cowley suggested. Picking up the receiver I dialled home. "Daddy, it's Denise. I'd like to come home for a few days; would you come and collect me?"
"Hallo, Ray." After nearly three weeks I was back at the flat, and following on from checking all the post my first action was to lift the phone.
"At last! When did you get back?"
"Just a short while ago." I'd spoken to him just the once, to let him know where I'd gone. It was natural he'd be concerned.
"And are you all right? Got over it?"
"Much better, thanks. It's strange, no matter how old you are, how much safer you feel with your family."
"Good. Are you going to be around this evening? I have some things to tell you."
"I'll be here. I'll cook, so you can bring a bottle - just don't bring Bodie."
The food was ready and waiting for him, so we ate and drank first, Ray reserving his news for afterwards. Pouring the last of the wine into our glasses, we moved to the sofa.
"So what did you have to tell me?" My news could wait.
"It's about the Manleys."
I tried not to show any apprehension. "Oh?"
"They were released on bail, the day after they assaulted us. But they won't be bothering anyone for a long time - they're both in hospital."
I sipped at my wine. "What happened?"
"They were attacked. Whoever it was, had a specific message to give them... let's just say neither of them will father any children."
He paused, and I met his eyes. "Do you expect me to feel sorry for them? Sounds like they got what they deserved."
"The man they work for - Coster - he was a drug dealer."
"Yeah. Same night the Manleys were attacked, Coster turns up dead - of a drug overdose."
"Bit of a coincidence."
"We don't tend to believe in coincidence, in CI5."
"So Coster upset someone, who got their revenge. I'm sure that happens all the time. Anyway -" I sipped again at my wine for Dutch courage. "I'm glad to see you tonight. I have some news for you."
"My company want me to move to another office. It's nothing as glamorous as New York, just Manchester. But I wanted to see you before I went."
"That's a shame." I could see the echo in his eyes of his previous relationship, but knew I'd neither made such an impression, nor would leave such a hole in his life. "When do you go?"
"End of the week, if I can get organised. My dad said he'll take over selling this place so I can get away."
"Are you trying to get away? From what happened, I mean?" It was a shrewd question.
We parted as friends.
I promised to write, but I wouldn't. I'd already put so much in jeopardy, just by dating Ray in the first place. I should've dumped him as soon as I found out who he worked for. Now I had to move - not to Manchester, that was a lie - but just away from here, so that Ray wouldn't find me.
Belonging to a family like mine has advantages, certainly. I had only to explain what happened, and Dad had organised swift retribution for the Manleys. I had thrown in the information about Coster and how he was threatening my friend, and he'd been dealt with as well.
Ray could never find out about it; could never know that my family made their living on the other side of the fence.
And I couldn't tell my Dad about Ray; could never let those two elements of my life come together.
I had to get away from Ray, before I began to care too much. I had to move on...