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'Darling, can you save me?'
Daisy Donohue froze. Lynda Twiggley's distinctive drawl was unmistakeable. It pierced the general buzz of conversation from the celebrity crowd and shot a bolt of alarm down Daisy's spine. If there was any saving to be done, as Lynda's PA, she had to do it, fast and effectively, or be lashed by her employer's sharp tongue for dereliction of duty.
She snapped into action, swinging around to find the source of the problem. The VIP marquee seemed packed with tall people. A bevy of Australia's top models had been flown in to add glamour to the event, which certainly wasn't known as the Magic Millions for nothing. Everyone here was either loaded with or associated with big money and they expected everything to be perfect for them. Especially her employer.
Being only of average height, and wearing sensible low-heeled shoes for all the toing and froing her work demanded today, Daisy stretched up on tiptoe, trying to spot the spray of royal-blue feathers that sprouted from Lynda's much-prized and hideously expensive Neil Grigg hat. A few tell-tale blue arrowheads placed her target near the open bar where there shouldn't be a problem. She had already checked there were ample cases of French champagne and every other choice of drink available. Had there been some spillage on Lynda's blue silk designer outfit?
Bad, bad, bad, Daisy thought in a burst of panic, quickly elbowing her way through the millionaire melee, wondering how she was going to fix some un-fixable stain. Her hammering heart was intensely relieved when she arrived on the scene and found her employer working hard at currying the favour of a man. But not just any man. As recognition hit, her heart started hammering all over again for a multitude of reasons.
This was the man reputed to have saved the richest people in Australia from suffering any nasty fall-out from the current global financial crisis—Ethan Cartwright, the whiz-kid financier who had foreseen the crash and diverted all the big cash to enterprises that would always return a profit, even in a recession.
Daisy stopped dead behind Lynda's shoulder and stared at him, a riot of emotions hitting her hard— anger, resentment, a wild hostility at the terrible injustice of the rich getting richer while the poor got poorer, especially her parents who were trapped in a debt they could no longer service. This man, above all others, represented that miserable situation.
She'd read about him, seen photographs of him, but what made her inner turmoil more savage was how stunningly handsome he really was in the flesh. The thick, wavy, black hair, twinkling green eyes, a strong male face that didn't have one unpleasing feature capping a tall, perfectly proportioned physique which carried the perfectly tailored suit he wore with distinction…it was so wickedly unfair! The man had absolutely everything! She doubly resented the fact that he had a sexual impact on her. And no doubt on every woman who was subjected to his power-packed presence.
It was highly disconcerting when he suddenly shifted his attention from Lynda Twiggley to shoot a quizzical look over her shoulder straight at Daisy. Had he felt her hostile stare? The sexy black eyebrows with their late kick upwards—just like Brad Pitt's—lifted with a kind of bemused puzzlement, and the startling green eyes bored into hers, searching for answers that pride forbade her to ever tell him.
Vexed by his distraction, Lynda swung around to deal with an unwelcome intrusion. With the recognition that no finesse was needed on a mere employee, her steely blue eyes savaged Daisy with displeasure. 'What do you want, Dee-Dee?' she snapped.
'Nothing, Ms Twiggley,' Daisy replied with as much aplomb as she could muster, given the squeamish spotlight of two sets of eyes demanding explanations. 'I thought I heard you calling for assistance.'
Lynda clicked her tongue impatiently. 'Not right now. And stop hovering. I'm sure you have more useful things to do.'
'Yes, of course. I'm sorry for interrupting. Please excuse me.'
Daisy had already begun her retreat when Ethan Cartwright intervened. 'Wait!' he commanded, stepping forward, one arm outstretched in appeal. He smiled, his perfectly sculpted mouth breaking open to show a row of perfect white teeth, making Daisy instantly deter mined that he wouldn't get a bite out of her, regardless of how charming he set out to be. 'We haven't met,' he said in a voice as rich as the rest of him. 'I would have remembered a Dee-Dee. It's such an unusual name. Be so kind as to introduce us, Lynda.'
'They're her initials, not her name,' Lynda said with a tinkling laugh that had Daisy's spine crawling with dislike for her employer and her endlessly patronising manner. If she didn't need this job and the pay packet that went with it, she would have walked out on day one when Lynda had stated she couldn't have a PA called Daisy because she associated that name with a lowly cow. Dee-Dee sounded far more upmarket.
'This is my PA, Ethan,' Lynda continued in a dismissive tone. 'No one you need to know.'
The snobbish remark apparently did not sit well with him. 'On the contrary, should I do business with you, your PA may be my first point of contact,' he countered, a hard glint in the green eyes.
'Oh, very well then,' Lynda conceded, realising he was going to persist and if she wanted him to butter her bread she had to toe his line. 'Ethan Cartwright, Daisy Donohue.'
'A pleasure to meet you, Mr Cartwright,' Daisy rattled out, wanting only to escape back into the crowd.
He viewed her curiously, offering his hand as though sensing her desire to bolt and purposely delaying her. 'Probably more of a pleasure for me to meet you, Daisy Donahue,' he said, amusement dancing in his eyes.
Oh, sure! What fun! Big man condescending to the little brown cow, Daisy thought viciously as she took his hand to complete the polite formality. The flesh contact tingled hotly and his grip felt aggressively strong, pressing a dominant will that she fiercely rebelled against when he held onto her hand longer than polite formality required.
'Please excuse me, Mr Cartwright. I don't have time to dally. I'm needed elsewhere,' she said firmly, tearing her gaze from the devilishly attractive green eyes and giving a subservient nod to Lynda Twiggley whose bad temper was probably already simmering at having an important conversation interrupted.
Apparently Ethan Cartwright had enough sensitivity to realise he might be causing her trouble and backed off, releasing her hand, though still smiling at her as though she pleased him, though why she would seemed totally perverse of him when the marquee was full of gorgeous women who would undoubtedly love his attention. She had brown hair, brown eyes and was wearing brown, conscious of keeping herself as insignificant as possible, not blotting one bit of the limelight her boss liked.
'If you have a spare minute, place a bet on Midas Magic,' he said on a parting note.
Put good money on a horse! Not in a million years! Daisy's tongue lost its discipline. 'Is that your best financial advice?' she shot at him in fiery scorn for all he stood for.
He laughed, giving a breathtaking oomph to his sexual magnetism. 'No, but it's a good bet,' he finally answered. 'I bought him at the yearling sales this week, on excellent advice, and he has the bloodline and form to win the big race.'
Daisy recovered enough breath to coolly state, 'I don't gamble.' She lied through her teeth as she added, 'I wish you luck, Mr Cartwright,' then turned her back on him to effect some fast distance from the troublesome encounter.
'All of life is a gamble, Daisy Donahue,' he floated after her.
Not for her it wasn't, and no way was she going to acknowledge the comment by looking back at him.
They all had money to burn, these people. Having worked the past three months with Lynda Twiggley whose PR agency organised events for A-list socialites, Daisy was constantly amazed and scandalised by how much they spent on having a good time. The pre-Christmas parties had been unreal. The New Year's revels, of course, had to be on a luxurious private yacht for the fireworks around Sydney Harbour to be viewed. Now anyone who was anyone was up on Queensland's Gold Coast for the annual Magic Millions carnival—the first big horse-racing event on the calendar.
It had begun earlier this week with the yearling sales, the largest sale of thoroughbreds in Australia. No doubt Ethan Cartwright had paid an enormously extravagant amount for Midas Magic, and had been celebrating his successful bid ever since. There'd been a ball, a swag of cocktail parties, and today was the day to cap it all off, the third richest race day of the year with almost five million dollars in prize money. Daisy sourly hoped his horse would run last.
All of life should not be a gamble.
Some things should be secure.
Like her parents' home.
If helping to make it secure meant staying in this rotten job, she would grit her teeth and do it, despite the severe heartburn it gave her.
Ethan had not been having a good time. He'd slipped away from the gaggle of women whose frivolous chatter bored him and then been cornered by Lynda Twiggley who was bent on getting him to handle her investments, which was even more boring and distasteful since this carnival was supposed to be fun, not work. The PR specialist had certainly not been using her expertise on him—far too irritatingly pushy—and her manner towards her assistant had bordered on contemptible.
Now there was a woman who did interest him—the little brown sparrow amongst all the glitzy parrots, playing the meek servant when there wasn't a meek bone in her body. A pocket dynamo, blasting so much hostile energy at him, it had instantly sparked the urge to engage her in battle. Not that he could, given the unfair circumstances of him being a guest and her being a worker under the eyes of her disapproving employer.
I don't gamble…
Containing herself in such a tight mentality, not running any risks whatsoever, probably had her exploding inside. Ethan found himself thinking he would enjoy liberating her, finding out what she would be like if all that burning passion was released. One thing was certain. Daisy Donahue did not have a frivolous personality. And she wasn't boring, either, he added as he suffered Lynda Twiggley claiming his attention again.
As I was saying before Dee-Dee interrupted…'
Dee-Dee… what a silly name to give to a person who had so much innate dignity! It also showed a lack of respect for her, which had been obvious in how this unbelievably arrogant woman had dealt with Daisy. Ethan held the firm belief that everyone deserved to be treated with respect, regardless of their position in life. He wondered why Daisy put up with it, then realised that in these tough economic times, she was not about to risk being out of work.
He gave Lynda Twiggley five more minutes so she wouldn't blame her PA for cutting her business short, then excused himself, saying, 'I already have a very full client list, Lynda, but I'll check if I can fit you in when I get back to my office.' He nodded towards his best friend who was chatting up one of the top-line models. 'Mickey Bourke told me we should talk to the jockey before the big race and it's time I went and collected him.'
'Oh!' Her face fell in disappointment before she summoned up a big parting smile. 'I'll go straight away and place a bet on Midas Magic'
He didn't care if she did or not. He just wanted to get away from her. Mickey had talked him into this horse business, insisting he needed some outside interest to lighten up his life and get him into the social whirl again after his grim disillusionment with his ex-fiancée. A bit of fun, Mickey had argued, especially if Ethan was off women.
According to his friend, there was nothing better than the rush of excitement one felt when watching your horse win a big race. Ethan had yet to feel it. Though Mickey should know. His father was one of the most successful thoroughbred trainers in Australia.
Mickey had been born and bred to the horse business. Even at school he would organise sweeps for the Melbourne Cup—strictly against the rules but he always got away with it. He'd been the livewire in their class—bright, witty, charming—a golden boy with his sun-bleached streaky blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. A natural athlete, too, which was one thing they did have in common, along with their tall, powerful physiques.
Everyone liked Mickey. He was always amusing company. Why he'd chosen to attach himself to Ethan— the quiet, intense student, and his fiercest competitor on the playing fields—had seemed weirdly perverse of him until Mickey had explained.
'No bullshit, okay? I'll give it to you straight. In the quality stakes you're a top-notch contender and I'mnatu-rally drawn to quality. I enjoy the way you think and the way you do things. You could easily cut the rest of us down but you don't. That makes you a great guy in my book.'
The straight face had then broken into a gleeful grin. 'Besides, there are several big advantages in being your friend. First up you're great camouflage. All the schoolmasters think the sun shines out of you, being such a star in class. If I stick with you, the respect they have for you rubs off on me and no one will suspect me of getting up to mischief. Besides which, you're a whiz at numbers and percentages, working out the odds. I like that. I really do respect that. I figure you're going to be a lot of use to me further down the track.'
It was his first demonstration of how smart Mickey was—smart in a way Ethan had not been familiar with, being the only child of dyed-in-the wool academics who did everything by the book, straight down the line. Ethan had instantly decided he could learn a lot from Mickey Bourke who was clearly a very shrewd operator.
'And to me, the writing is already on the wall,' Mickey had continued, adopting a mock-resigned air. 'It's in the way your mind works, Ethan. It homes in on what's absolutely pertinent. You see the play. Your anticipation is incredible. So, regardless of how well I perform on the playing field, I know it will be you the coach will pick to be captain of the cricket team and the rugby. My best choice is to win your friendship, stand at your side and share in your glory.'