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"I believe this is our dance."
Achingly aware of the masculine heat at her back, Natalie Wilder bit down on her lipan attempt to quell her full body quiver. Above the soft strains of music she'd heard his sable-smooth voice, but should she pretend that she hadn't?
Rather than a request, his words had been more a decree, and she wasn't the kind to be pushed. At least she wasn't that kind anymore.
Still, tonight she was intrigued.
On the romantically lit dance floor, she edged away from her current partner's holda nice man she'd met five minutes earlierand turned to gaze into a pair of eyes. Penetrating, entrancing, smiling dark eyes.
Her heart began to race.
Everyone here knew this man. He was of Spanish descent, charming, mysterioussome might even say dangerous. For the last few minutes, she'd secretly watched him watching her from a shadowed corner of the ballroom. His name was an exotic elixir she craved to taste on her tongue.
Natalie gifted him a smile. "Alexander Ramirez, isn't it?"
Onyx eyes flashed before his beautifully sculpted mouth curved a mouth that knew how to kiss. How to love.
He lifted her hand to that warm mouth now and murmured, "At your service."
When she'd arrived tonight, she'd taken in a view of the majestic Opera House shells presiding over Sydney's famous harbour. The bridge was a glittering arc to the left of a low-slung full moon, which radiated lazy ribbons of gold over the shifting twilight waters. That extraordinary sight paled in comparison to this man's casual yet compelling gaze.
Be wary, it seemed to say. Approach at your own risk.
Ramirez was anything butnice.
Acceding to his competition, Natalie's ousted partner thanked her for the dance and Mr. Ramirez gathered her in strong tuxedo-clad arms. Beneath a shower of slow-spinning lights, she took note of his rock-solid heat and masculine scent, so clean and intoxicating the sexual awareness it created was close to drugging.
While his thumb grazed a slow circle between her shoulder blades, Natalie deigned to ask, "Isn't cutting in a little presumptuous?"
He spoke to her lips. "No."
She raised her brows. "Such a simple answer."
"'Twas a simple question."
She tingled at his accent, its sensual slide as subtle as a brush with warm black satin. Reckless, no doubt, but she wanted to feel it again.
"I have another question."
"Be my guest."
"Are you in the habit of undressing women with your eyes from across crowded rooms?"
When his handsome face tipped closer, glossy black hair fell over one side of his brow. "Not until tonight."
She grinned. Smooth didn't come close.
"You didn't stop to think that your examination might've made me uncomfortable."
"Only in a welcomed way."
She laughed softly. "Mr. Ramirez, you're shameless."
"And you're beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, I'm tempted to whisk you away from here directly to my bed."
A rush of heat flashed through her centre, tightening the tips of her breasts beneath her gown's silver-white bodice. His gaze challenged hers even as it mesmerised and roped her in.
But she wouldn't reward him with any hint of surrender. She was having far too much fun teasing.
Her gaze flicked away. "I hardly think that's appropriate talk, here, in front of"
"I'm not finished." Hot fingertips ironed down the sensitive curve of her back, stopping at the small of her spine, coaxing her hips that much closer to his. He leaned near, her neck arced back and his parted lips grazed hers. "When you're naked and trembling with want beneath me, I'll devour you, first with my hands, then my mouth "
She swallowed and trembled inside. "What then?"
"You know what then." His calculating eyes crinkled at the corners. "You're looking forward to what then."
Her heart galloped on. "Has anyone mentioned you're incredibly arrogant?"
The beast chuckled. "No one would dare."
"Like you dared to leave my bed at some ungodly hour this morning?" His fingers delved lower, over the arc of her behind, releasing a sensual spill of lava through her veins. "I pulled you back and you stayed another hour. I should have persuaded you to stay two."
Melting from the inside out, she pretended to look over her shoulder. "Your hand's a little low. What will the other guests say?"
His smile eased wider. "Lucky man."
Sighing, she combed her fingers over his impossibly broad shoulder then upward to cup his firm raspy jaw.
Her lover of three glorious months was enjoying their private seduction game as much as she was. Every day they were together, the thrill of seeing each othertouching each otheronly grew. The knowledge was like a brewing storm intense, volatile, at times forbiddingly dark, at others supernova bright. But there'd been no talk of a future. Nor would there be.
Some people's pasts couldn't be left behind.
Six years ago, seventeen-year-old Tallie Wilder from Constance Plains accepted that she'd put on weight for a reason. Quaking inside, she'd informed Chris Nagars in the dispatch room of his father's hardware store that she was late. They were pregnant. Her boyfriend had spliced a hand through his shock of dark hair, had pledged his love and had split town the next day. Crushed, Tallie summoned the courage to tell her parents over Sunday roast.
She wanted to keep her baby.
At the head of the table, a dazed Jack Wilder had slowly hooked his thumbs under his braces while Tallie's poor mother had cried softly into her dinner napkin. Constance Plains was an old-fashioned town. Girls who got in trouble weren't forgotten, or forgiven, and at twenty weeks she was beginning to show.
The next month, walking home from the grocery store where she tended till, Tallie had been daydreaming of escaping Constance Plains, of being independent and smart enough to succeed, when she stumbled and hit the pavement hard. A crippling pain gripped her tummy before a rush of warm water emptied in her pants.
Her parents rushed her to the six-bed hospital where she'd given birth prematurely. May Wilder was by her daughter's side the entire time, her near colourless grey eyes glistening with unconditional love and support.
"Of course we'll keep the baby," May had murmured, wiping Tallie's brow as the nurse spirited the weak newborn away. "And she'll be loved in our house. Your dad says so, too."
Her brave baby girl had clung to life for two short hours. Tallie had been stroking her daughter's little hand moments before she'd passed on. Although Minister Roarke's bushy brows had drawn in disapproval at the request, Katie May Wilder had been buried in the Baptist cemetery under the scarlet blooms of a poinciana tree.
The epitaph read, Never Forgotten.
A month later, the town doctor told Tallie that intrauterine scar tissue, resulting from the post-delivery curettage, could cause complications with fertility later on. Tallie didn't care. She only wanted to die, too. If she hadn't been daydreaming impossible dreams, if she'd been paying attention rather than falling and bringing her labour on early
Four months later, Tallie escaped the small-town glares and thumbed a ride to Sydney.
She visited home the first Monday of every month. Her father had died two years ago from a stroke, but her mother still baked Madeira cakes for church functions, and Tallie's presence still garnered glares. They only made her stronger. She no longer prayed for death. In fact, with each passing year she felt less and less.
Now, with the lilting strains of a ballad weaving around them, his chest so warm and the lighting just right, Tallie, or Natalie as she was known in the city, moulded herself against Alexander's tall, muscular length. Resting her cheek against his dinner jacket lapel, she closed her eyes.
There'd be no happily ever after, no family of her own, most definitely not with Alexander Ramirez.
Before they'd made love the first time, Alex had been upfront. He wasn't ready to settle down. However, being the last male descendent of his line, when he did marry, starting a family and siring an heir to continue the Ramirez name would be of paramount importance. The reputation of the woman who fathered his children would be above reproach. Her upbringing must also be suitable, and she would be as dedicated to the idea of family as he was. He would settle only for the best where the mother of his children was concerned.
Natalie wasn't offended. He wasn't implying anything about her. He was simply being candid and, at that turning point in their relationship, she couldn't condemn his honesty. He wanted her to know the score, give her a chance to pull out.
He'd been a little taken aback at how easily she'd agreed to keep their affair "no strings attached" and "for as long as it lasted." After all, she wasn't the Miss Perfect Alex would one day marry. Quite the contrary. She as a high-school dropout with a pitted past and a near empty heart because of it. Still, she could pretend for a short time she was good enough for an exceptional man like Alexander. Tonight she would pretend she was whole.
He murmured against the shell of her ear, "Sorry I was late. I'm close to getting a firm commitment on that medical research venture I told you about.
Dai Zhang dropped in this evening for a final run-through before signing next week."
Alex had mentioned Zhang's name several times. As was the case with the majority of his projects, Alex had been looking for a partner to co-finance trials of a new pharmaceutical. The money involved was staggering, but if the drug proved successful, all would benefit, not least of all dialysis patients. That previous trials of similar drugs had failed was a sticking point with the cautious Chinese businessman. However, it seemed that this evening Alex might have finally convinced Zhang this particular effort would bring about a breakthrough.
"I still could've collected you." Alex's sandpaper jaw grazed her temple before he lightly kissed the spot. "I wanted to."
In truth, Natalie's stomach had knotted when she'd walked into this ballroom unaccompanied tonight. Alex's parents were deceased but she hadn't met his sister and she wasn't certain Teresa Ramirez, the one person Alexander listened to, would approve. Natalie hardly fit the famed Ramirez class. Not that Teresa, or anyone, need worry. Natalie certainly didn't have marriage on her mind.
Finding a smile, she fanned her fingers over the crisp black fabric below his left shoulder. "You were already in the city. It made sense for me to take a taxi in from Manly. I was here alone barely five minutes."
His dark eyes roamed her face, as if he were looking for some nuance or line he'd missed before. "Are you always so understanding?"
She laughed softly. "Always."
Who was she to cast stones?
"When we finish this dance I'll introduce you to Teresa and her fiancé." His coal-black eyes smiled into hers. "They'll love you."
Natalie smothered a sigh. No avoiding introductions, she supposed, even when she preferred to keep their affair private. It would be easier when the time came. No explanations or awkward chance meetings with friends or family later. Just a simple, Goodbye. It's been nice.
As he pressed her close, his cheek resting against her crown, Natalie wondered.
Would the decision to dissolve their affair be his choice or hers? As chief beneficiary of the Ramirez multiple millions, as well as a highly successful venture capitalist in his own right, surely Alex would tire of her sooner rather than later. He knew actresses, heiresses, a European countess. She was hardly Alexander's first lover, nor would she be his last.
Or perhaps she would be the one to pull back.