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It was the seediest nightclub he'd ever seen and Titus Alexander couldn't quite hide his instinctive shudder of distaste. Heedless of the curious glances his aristocratic good looks were attracting, he adjusted his powerful frame in the flimsy chair and looked around.
The place was half full of people you wouldn't want to bump into on a dark night and the waitresses wore costumes which might have been considered sexy if they hadn't all been carrying an extra thirty pounds. He froze to find an enormous pair of breasts wobbling perilously close to his face, as he was served a cocktail he was never going to touch. And not for the first time, he wondered who in their right mind would ever choose to work in a dive like this.
Leaning back in his seat, he stared at the stage and reminded himself that he wasn't here to critique his surroundings or to reflect that he'd never been in such a low-rent place before. He was here to see a woman. A woman who
His thoughts were halted by the tinny fanfare of a piano and the slightly slurred voice of the compere who had been introducing a succession of failing acts all evening.
'Ladies and Gentlemen! Tonight, I am proud to present a singing legend. A woman who has had number one hits in thirteen different countries. Who, with her girl-band The Lollipops, has known the kind of fame that most of us only ever dream of. She's consorted with royalty and politiciansbut tonight she's exclusively ours. So I ask you to give it up for the beautiful and talented Miss Roxanne Carmichael!'
The applause in the half-empty club was sporadic and Titus mimed a brief clapping as he watched the woman appear from the wings, his body automatically tensing as she took centre stage.
His eyes narrowed. Was that really her?
He'd heard a lot about her. Read a lot about her. He'd seen her staring back at him from old magazine covers, with her cat-like eyes and a sleek body which had advertised everything from diamonds to raincoats. She stood for everything he despised, with her loud, flashy beauty and a long list of lovers which appalled himbecause he had the sexual double standards of many of his class. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting when he encountered her in the flesh for the first timebut it certainly wasn't this deep, tightening clench inside him, which felt uncomfortably like the beginning of lust. And he couldn't for the life of him work out why.
Maybe it was because she looked nothing like the provocative creature whose girl-band had stormed the international charts all those years ago. Back then, she'd sported deliberately ripped stockings worn with a too-short school uniform and was always seen sucking provocatively on a lollipop, which had helped give the band their name. As their success had grown the sticky lollipops had been jettisoned along with the jail-bait clothesbut the image projected to the public had still been that of sexy bad girls. The kind of woman you wouldn't want to take home to meet your mother. And Roxanne Carmichael had certainly lived up to her reputation as a wild child.
He let his gaze flicker over her body. The passing of the years hadn't added any extra weight to her frame. In fact, apart from the luscious curve of her breastswere they real? he wonderedshe looked almost painfully slender. Her cheekbones were emphasised by deep shadows beneath them and her jaw was sharply defined. Without the glossy exterior provided by extreme wealth, her mane of hair was no longer teased into a myriad shades from honey through to bronze, but now hung in a natural dark-blonde curtain over her shoulders.
But her eyes were still that incredible shade of blue and her lips still looked as if they were capable of inciting a man to commit sin. Despite the faded jeans and the sequined shirt, she carried herself with a natural grace, Titus concededbut she looked tired. And jaded. Like a woman who had seen too much, too often. I'll bet she has, he thought grimly as she picked up the microphone and held it close to her scarlet lips.
'Hi, everyone.' Her lashes fluttered as her gaze darted around the room. 'My name is Roxy Carmichael and tonight I'm here to entertain you.'
'You can entertain me any time you like, Roxy!' yelled an unsteady male voice from the back of the dark club and somebody laughed.
There was a pauseTitus thought she looked as if she was about to change her mind. For one brief moment, she looked almost vulnerable. As if someone had got her up on stage by mistake and she was unsure what to do next. And then she opened her mouth and began to sing and, in spite of everything, he felt a thrill of excitement as that first note broke free. He sat back in his seat, listening as the soaring sound poured from her slender throat, and he felt another unwanted stir of his senses. So her reputation was founded on real talent and not just hype, he recognisedhis eyes fixed with reluctant admiration to the sway of her hips, which moved in perfect time to the music.
The set passed in a blur. She sang of love and loss. She slung her head back as if in silent ecstasy and once again Titus felt that familiar tightening at his groin. Her low voice faltered as the last song ended on a breathless little sigh, and he had to snap out of the spell she seemed to have cast on him. To stop imagining those amazing lips making sweet music all over his body and to remember who she really was. A marriage-busting, money-grabbing little bitch. What must it be like to be as ruthless as Roxy Carmichael? he wondered. To be so desperate to cling onto the wealth she'd lost that she would steal another woman's husband in order to do so?
She ended the set abruptlyher half-closed eyes fluttering open after the last song as if she had just awoken from a dream and was surprised to find herself in the small and stuffy club. Still blinking, she obeyed the half-hearted applause by launching into one soulful encorebut the memorable tune sounded bizarre in the small and tacky setting of the Kit-Kat Club. And just as quickly she was gone, with a swish of the sparkly shirt and a glimpse of faded denim clinging to her bottom.
The pianist staggered off in the direction of the bar, the dusty velvet curtain came down and Titus rose to his feet and slipped on his coat, feeling oddly dirty. He could feel the sleazy fug of the place on his skin as he left the building, relieved to be able to suck in a breath of cold, crisp air as he walked round to the door at the back of the club.
His knock brought a heavy, middle-aged woman to the door, her hooded eyes flicking over him. 'Can I help you?'
'I hope so,' said Titus softly. 'I'm here to see Roxy Carmichael.'
'Is she expecting you?'
He shook his head. 'Not exactly.'
The woman's jowly face frowned with sharp scrutiny. 'Are you from the press?'
Titus curved his lips into a sardonic smile. Had centuries of privileged lineage resulted in him looking like a journalist? he wondered acidly. He shook his head. 'Most emphatically, no. I am not from the press.'
'Well, she says she's not taking any callers,' said the woman flatly.
'Are you sure?' Titus withdrew a slim leather wallet from his pocket and slickly peeled off a note, before sliding it into her unresisting hand. 'Why don't you ask her again nicely?'
The woman seemed to hesitate for a moment before snatching the note and stuffing it in the pocket of her dress. 'I can't promise you anything,' she said ungraciously, jerking her head to indicate that he should follow her.
Stepping inside and shutting the stage door behind him, Titus was quickly enveloped in the gloom of the backstage area. He knew that he could have waited. Gone to see Roxanne Carmichael in the morning and delivered his crushing blow to her in the cold light of day and on his own territory. But his blood was fired up and he wanted to finish this off tonight. Besides, he was a man who never liked waitingand now that he had control of the family estate it meant he never had to.
The woman in the floral dress had come to a halt and was now rapping on a dressing-room door.
'Who is it?' called a breathy voice he instantly recognised as that of Roxy Carmichael and something about its sensual undertones made his skin prickle with undeniable desire. But he stood hidden in the shadows as the door was pushed open and light streamed out from a shabby dressing room.
'It's Margaret,' said the woman, her hand moving around in her pocket as if she was checking the note he'd just given her was still there.
From her position at the mirror where she had been wiping the last of the gunky stage make-up from her face, Roxanne swivelled round in the chair, trying not to look dispirited. But it wasn't easy. It hadn't been the greatest evening in the world. There was nothing worse than playing in a half-empty club to an audience which was full of drink. The Kit-Kat Club seemed to be on the decline and she knew that her singing spot had failed to revitalise audience figures. Hadn't the management told her so just that very morningin a grim message underpinned with the unspoken warning that lack of success would not be tolerated?
She told herself that it wasn't personalthat the music industry had always been this way. She just happened to have been very fortunate at the start of her career and she shouldn't forget that. But she was tired. Bone-tired. With an aching kind of emptiness which wouldn't shift and a horrible tickle at the back of her throat which wouldn't seem to go away.
Stifling a yawn, she looked at the woman in the floral dress who was standing in the doorway with an expectant look on her face and she forced a smile. 'Yes, what is it, Margaret?'
'There's a gentleman here who says he wants to see you.'
A gentleman? Roxanne deposited the damp piece of cotton wool on the battered dressing table and gave a wry smile. Once, there had been thousands of people who had clamoured at stage doors to see her. Men who wanted to go to bed with her, and young girls who had looked up to her for no reason she'd ever been able to work out. Squads of security people had been employed to keep those crowds at baybut not any more. These days, visitors were few and far between and those that did make it past the stage door were greeted with suspicion. She found herself wondering if her father had turned up out of the bluewith yet another ridiculous scheme for making her 'comeback'. Her mouth tightened. As if she would ever consider letting him be a part of itno matter how much her career could do with a lift. She thought about the dwindling audiences and the evermore seedy venues and her heart twisted painfully in her chest. Because sooner or later she was going to have to take a tough, hard look at her future and ask herself how much longer she was going to tolerate being kicked back.
'Did he give his name?' she asked. 'Is he from the press?'
Margaret shrugged. 'He says he's not. And he doesn't look like a journalist. He looks well ' she lowered her voice handsome.'
Roxanne suppressed a shudder. There was possibly only one thing worse than some journalist wanting to do a 'Where Are They Now?' featureand that was a man who might have decided that she was still attractive enough to pursue. She gave a cynical shake of her head. 'I'm not interested in pretty boys, Margaret.'
'And rich,' murmured the older woman, like a bounty hunter.
At this, Roxy stilledbecause some fantasies were too deeply ingrained to get rid of, no matter how crazy they might seem. Was it possible that her dream could still come true? That some wealthy impresario had been sitting in the audience listening to her singing and decided that he wanted to take a chance on her? Someone who had recognised that she still had a talent which burned brightly and which it was a crying shame to waste. And if that were the case, then surely it wouldn't hurt her to turn on the charm, would it?
Smoothing down her hair, she injected a note of warmth into her voice. 'Then why don't you send him in?' she said.
Titus had heard every word of the brief interchange and, although it shouldn't have surprised him, still it made his mouth harden. What had he expectedthat she'd be proud enough to turn away some unknown caller who had turned up at the end of her set? Of course not. Just the mention of money had made her voice quiver with eagerness. Some women would sell themselves for money, he reminded himself, and this was one of them. Swallowing down the sour taste of disgust, he stepped forward.
'You can go in' Margaret began, but Titus had already brushed past her and walked into the tiny dressing room.
Still seated, Roxy widened her eyes as a tall figure entered the cramped confines of the room. A hundred conflicting messages buzzed around in her head as he quietly shut the door behind him and for a moment she felt positively weak. She was aware of an immense power, which seemed to spark off him like electricityand of something else, too. Something she'd almost forgotten about until she met his icy stare for the first time.
She swallowed. A desire which was the last thing she wanted, or needed. It began to scorch like wildfire around her veins and suddenly the cramped room felt claustrophobic. She wanted to get outfar away from the way he was making her feel. She wanted to run a million miles from that bright grey gaze which was boring through her and making her heart perform an erratic dance. 'I don't remember telling you to close the door,' she said sharply.