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Russian Billionaire Rumored to Be Acquiring Troubled Department Store Chain
She was here. Roman Kazarov knew it as surely as he knew his own name, though he had not yet seen her. The woman at his side made a noise of frustration, a tiny little sound meant to draw his attention back to her. He flicked his gaze over her, and then away again.
Bored. The woman was beautiful, but he was bored. One night in her bed, and he was ready to move on.
Her fingers curled possessively around his arm. He resisted the urge to shake them off. He'd brought her here tonight on impulse. Because Caroline Sullivan-Wells would be here. Not that Caroline would care if he had a woman on his arm. No, she'd made it very clear five years ago that she didn't care about him in the least.
Had never cared.
Once, her rejection had cut him to the bone. Now, he felt nothing. Nothing but cold determination. He'd returned to New York a far different man than he'd left it five years ago.
A rich man. A ruthless man.
A man with a single goal.
Before the month was out, he would own Sullivan's, the luxury chain of department stores founded by her family.
It was the culmination of everything he'd worked so hard for, the symbolic cherry on top of the ice-cream sundae. He did not need Sullivan's, but he wanted it. Once, he'd been an acolyte at the feet of Frank Sullivan. And then he'd been unceremoniously tossed out, his work visa terminated, his dreams of providing a better life for his family back home in Russia shattered.
All he'd dared to do was fall in love with Caroline, but that one act had been the same as strapping on wings made of wax and flying too close to the sun. He'd fallen far and fast.
But now he was back. And there was nothing Caroline or her father could do about what he'd set in motion.
As if in answer to some hidden command, the crowd parted to reveal a woman standing on the other side of the room. She was deep in conversation. The glow from the Wa-terford chandelier overhead shone down in just such a way that it appeared to single her out, wreathing her golden-blond head and milky skin in a nimbus of pale light.
Roman's gut clenched. She was still beautiful, still ethereal. And she still affected him, which only served to anger him further. He had not expected it, this jolt of remembered lust and bittersweet joy. He stood there and willed the feeling away until he could look at her coldly, critically.
Yes, much better. That was what he wanted to feeldisgust. Hatred.
His jaw tightened. She chose that moment to look up, almost as if she'd sensed something was wrong, as if there was a disturbance in her wellordered circle of friends. There was a crease in the smooth skin over her hazel eyes, as if she was annoyed at being interrupted.
But then she saw him. Her eyes widened, her pink lips dropping open. She put a hand to her chest, then thought better of it and dropped it to her sidebut not before he saw how he affected her. For a long moment, neither of them looked away. She broke the contact first, saying something to the person she'd been talking to, before she turned and fled through a door behind her.
Roman stiffened. He should feel triumphant, yet he strangely felt as if she'd rejected him again. As if his world were about to come crashing down just as it had five years ago. But that was not possible, not any longer. He had the upper hand now. He was the victor, the conqueror.
And yet bitterness coiled inside him, twisting and writhing on the floor of his soul, reminding him of how far he'd fallen, and how hard. Reminding him of how much that fall had cost him before he'd been able to pull himself up again.
"Darling," the woman at his side said, drawing his attention from the door through which Caroline had disappeared, "can you fetch me a drink?"
Roman gazed down at her. She was pretty, spoiled, an actress with a face and body that usually drove men wild. She was used to commanding attention, to having her whims obeyed without question.
But what she saw in his face must have given her pause. She took a step back, her fingers sliding over the sleek fabric of his bespoke tuxedo. She was already calculating, already trying to recover from her mistake.
"I do not fetch," he told her coolly. And then he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his wallet. He took out five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills and pressed them into her hand. "Enjoy yourself for as long as you wish. When you are finished, take a cab home."
She reached for him as he turned. "You're leaving me?"
Her eyes were wide, her confidence in her beauty shaken. He would have felt sorry for her, except that he was certain loads of interested men would swarm around her as soon as he walked away. Roman took her hand from his sleeve, lifted it to his lips and pressed a kiss to the back of it. "It is not meant to be, maya krasavitsa. You will find another who deserves you."
And then he left her standing alone as he went in search of another woman. A woman who would not escape him this time.
Caroline took the elevator down to the first floor and hurried out to the sidewalk. Her heart hammered in her head, her throat, and she clutched her wrap to her body and tried to breathe evenly. Roman.
She blinked back the sudden tears that hovered, and gave the doorman a shaky smile when he asked if she'd like a taxi.
"Yes, please," she said, her voice a touch breathless from her flight. Of all the people to be in that room tonight. And yet she should have expected him, shouldn't she? She'd read that he was back in town. The newspapers couldn't seem to leave the subject of Roman Kazarov alone. Or his mission.
Caroline's fingers tightened on the silk wrap. It would be hopelessly wrinkled when she was done, but she hardly cared. She'd known she would have to see him again, but she hadn't expected it to happen quite yet. No, she'd expected to face him in a boardroomand even that thought had been almost enough to make her lose her lunch at the time.
How could she face him again? How? One moment, one look from across the room, and she was a jittery wreck of raw emotion. He had always had that effect on her, but she was nevertheless stunned that he still did. After all this time. After everything.
Her spine melted under the silken caress of her name on those lips she'd once loved so much. Once, but no more. She was a woman now, a woman who had made her choice. She'd do the same thing again, given the circumstances. She'd saved Sullivan's then; she would save it now, too.
No matter that Roman Kazarov and his multinational conglomerate had other ideas.
She turned with a smile on her lips. A smile that shook at the corners. She only hoped it was too dark for him to notice.
"Mr. Kazarov," she said, her voice a little too shrill, a little too brittle.
She needed to find her strength, her centerbut she was off balance, her system still in shock from the surprise of seeing him in that room tonight.
Her heart took a slow tumble over the edge of the shelf on which it sat, falling into her belly, her toes. She felt hollow inside, so hollow, as she gazed up into those bright, ice-blue eyes of his. He was still incredibly handsome. Tall, broad-shouldered, with dark hair and the kind of chiseled features that made artists itch to pick up their palette knives and brushes.
Or made photographers snap-happy. Yes, she'd seen the photos of him since he'd burst onto the scene a little over two years ago. She still remembered the first time, when Jon had handed her the paper over breakfast and told her she needed to see who was featured there.
She'd nearly choked on her coffee. Her husband had reached for her hand and squeezed it. He was the only one who knew how devastating news of Roman would be to her. In the years that followed, she'd watched Roman's rise with trepidation, knowing in her gut that he would return one day.
Knowing that he would come for her.
Roman tsked. "After all we were to each other, Caroline? Is this how you greet an old friend?"
"I wasn't aware we were friends," she said, remembering with a pang the way he'd looked at her that night when she'd informed him they couldn't see each other anymore. He'd just told her he loved her. She'd wanted to say the same words back to him, but it had been impossible. So she'd lied. And he'd looked stunned. Wounded. And then he'd looked angry.
Now, he looked as if he could care less. It disconcerted her. She was off balance, a mess inside. A churning, sick mess, and he looked cool, controlled. Calm.
But why was she a mess? She'd done what she'd had to do. She would do it again. She tilted her chin up. Yes, she'd done the right thing, no matter the personal cost. Two people's happiness had been nothing compared to the well-being of the countless people whose livelihoods had depended upon Sullivan's.
Roman shrugged. "Then we are certainly old acquaintances." One eyebrow arched as his gaze slid down to where she clutched the wrap over her breasts. She'd worn a strapless black dress tonight, but she felt as if she were naked under the silk, the way his eyes took their time perusing her. Heat flared in her core. Unwelcome heat. "Old lovers" Roman said, as his eyes met hers again.
She turned and stared across Fifth Avenue toward the park, her insides trembling. Traffic was jammed up, barely moving due to some unseen obstruction, and she knew her cab would be a long time in arriving. How would she endure this?
She'd hoped beyond hope that she would never see him again. It would be easier that way. Safer.
"You do not wish to be reminded?" Roman asked. "Or have you decided to pretend it never happened?"
"I know what happened." She would never forget. How could she when she had a daily reminder of the passion she'd once shared with this man? Panic threatened to claw its way into her throat at the thought, but she refused to let it. "But it was a long time ago."
"I was sorry to hear about your husband," he said then, and her stomach twisted into a painful knot.
Poor Jon. Poor, poor Jon. If anyone had deserved happiness, it had been him. "Thank you," she said, the lump in her throat making her words come out tight. Jon had been gone for over a year now, but it still had the power to slice into her when she thought of those last helpless months when the leukemia had ravaged his body. It was so unfair.
She dipped her head a moment, surreptitiously dashing away the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. Jon had been her best friend in the world, her partner, and she missed him still. Thinking of Jon reminded her that she had to be as strong as he'd been when facing his illness.
Roman was a man, and men could be defeated. "It won't work," she said, her voice fiercer than she'd thought she could manage at that moment.
Roman cocked an eyebrow. So smooth. "What won't work, darling?"
A shiver chased down her spine. Once, he'd meant the endearment, and she'd loved the way his Russian accent slid across the words as he spoke. It was a caress before the caress. Now, however, he did it to torment her. The words were not a caress so much as a threat.
She turned and faced him head-on, tilting her head back to look him in the eye. He stood with his hands in his pockets, one corner of his beautiful mouth slanted up in a mocking grin.
Evil, heartless bastard. That was what he was now. What she had to think of him as. He wasn't here to do her any favors. He would not be merciful.
Especially if he discovered her secret.
"You won't soften me up, Roman," she said. "I know what you want and I plan to fight you."
He laughed. "I welcome it. Because you will not win. Not this time." His eyes narrowed as he studied her. "Funny, I would have never thought your father would step down and leave you in charge. I always thought they would carry him from his office someday."
A shard of cold fear dug into her belly, as it always did when someone mentioned her father these days. "People change," she said coolly.
And sometimes those changes were completely unexpected. A wave of love and sadness filled her at the thought of her father, sitting in his overstuffed chair by the window and staring at the lake beyond. Some days he recognized her. Most days he did not.
"In my experience they don't. Whatever was there at the start will continue to be there in the end." His gaze slid over her again, and her skin prickled. "People sometimes want you to think they've changed, in order to protect themselves, but I find it's never true."
"Then you must not know many people," she said. "We all change. No one stays the same."
"No, we don't. But whatever the essence was, that remains. If one is heartless, for instance, one doesn't suddenly grow a heart."
Caroline's skin glowed with heat. She knew he was speaking of her, speaking of that night when she'd thrown his love back in his face. She wanted to deny it, wanted to tell him the truth, but what good would it do? None whatsoever.
"Sometimes things are not as they seem," she said. "Appearances can be deceptive."
As soon as she said it, she knew it was the wrong thing to say. His icy eyes grew even frostier as he studied her. "I have no doubt you would know this."
Fury and sadness warred inside her. The only thing to do was to pretend not to understand his meaning. Caroline gave a superior sniff. "Nevertheless, Daddy has reevaluated his priorities. He's enjoying himself at his country estate these days. He worked hard for it, and he deserves it."
There was a lump in her throat. She gritted her teeth and turned to look hopefully for a taxi, willing herself not to cry as she did so. She wasn't ordinarily overcome with emotion, but thinking about her father's illness in the presence of this man she'd once loved was a bit overwhelming.
"I had no idea you were interested in taking over the business someday," Roman said, his tone more than a bit mocking. "I'd rather thought your interests lay elsewhere."
She whipped around to look at him. "Such as shopping and getting my nails done? That was never my plan."