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As Romain De Valois approached the ballroom he was glad for a second that the doors were closed. They acted as a barrier of sorts between him and that world. The thought caught him up short. A barrier? Since when had he ever thought he needed that? His strides grew longer, quicker, as if to shrug off the unaccustomed feeling that assailed him. And the most curious sensation hit him too at that moment the desire to have someone by his side as he approached this set of doors. Someone a woman with her hand in his, who would understand effortlessly what he was thinking, who would glance up at him, a gleam of shared understanding in her eyes. She might even smile a little, squeeze his hand
His steps faltered for just a second before reaching the door. The vibration of the orchestra, the muted raucous chatter and laughter of the hundreds of people inside was palpable in his chest. What on earth was wrong with him? Daydreaming about a woman when he'd never felt the lack of anything beforemuch less a partner. And one thing was for sure: no woman existed like that in his world, or even in his imagination until that second. If he wanted a woman like that he'd be better off going back to his small French home town, and he'd left that behind a long time agophysically, mentally and emotionally. His hand touched the handle of the door, concrete and real, not like the disturbing wispy images in his head. He turned it and opened the door.
The rush of body heat, conversation, the smell of perfume mixed with aftershave was vivid and cloying. And yet there was a slightly awed hush that rippled through the room when he walked in. He barely noticed it any more, and wondered if he would even care if it didn't happen. His mouth twisted with unmistakable cynicism as his eyes skipped over the looks and the whisperings, seeking out his aunt. The fact was, as head of the fashion world's most powerful business conglomerate, he practically owned every single person who had anything to do with fashion in this huge glittering ballroom, and even some of those who rode on their coat-tails.
He owned all the dresses and suits so carefully picked out with a mind to current trends. He owned the ridiculously expensive cosmetics that sat on the flawless skin of the women, and the lustrous jewels that adorned their ears, necks and throats. They knew it and he knew it.
The crowd shifted and swayed to let him through, and for the first time in his life he didn't feel any kind of thrill of anticipation. In fact what he felt was dissatisfaction.
He was relatively young, wealthier than any other man there, and he knew with no false conceit that he was handsome. Most important of all, he was single. And here in New York that put a bounty on his head. So he was under no illusions as to what he represented to women in a crowd like this. And those women he'd have taken his pick from before seemed now to be too garish, too accessible. Dismayingly, the ease with which he knew he could pick the most beautiful, the most desirable, now made distaste flavour his mouth. A pneumatic blonde dressed in little more than a scrap of lace held together by air bore down on him even now.
Relief flooded him when he saw his aunt, and he crossed to her side. Focusing on her brought his mind back to the reason he was there at all tonight. To check someone out in a professional capacitya model he was being advised to hire for one of the most lucrative ad campaigns ever. His aunt was the latest to put pressure on him as the woman in question was one of her own models. He knew well that this woman, Sorcha Murphy, would be like every other in this room. And on top of that she had a history that made her, as far as he was concerned, unemployable. Still, though, he worked and operated his business as a democracy and had no time for despotic rule. He had to play the game, show that he had at least come to inspect her for himself before telling them no
His aunt turned and smiled fondly in acknowledgment as he approached.
'No.' Sorcha took in a deep patient breath. 'It's pronounced Sorka '
'That's almost as cute as you, honey and where is it from?'
The man's beady eyes set deep into his fleshy face swept up and down again with a lasciviousness that made Sorcha snatch her hand back from his far too tight and sweaty grasp. He clearly had no more interest in where she or her name were from than the man in the moon. She managed to say, with some civility and a smile that felt very fake, 'It's Gaelic. It means brightness
It's been lovely meeting you, but if you wouldn't mind, I really must'
She looked around at her name being called with abject relief. The need to get away from this oily tycoon from Texas was acute and immediate.
'Kate ' She couldn't disguise that relief as she greeted her friend, and gave her a very pointed look.
Sorcha turned back to the man whose eyes were now practically popping out of his head as he saw the luminous blonde beauty join Sorcha's side. Her best friend merely smiled sweetly at him and led Sorcha away.
'Boy, am I glad to see you. I think I need a shower after that.' Sorcha gave a little shiver. 'I know. He cornered me earlier, and when I saw you with him I knew I had to save you.'
Sorcha smiled at her closest friend in the whole world and gave her a quick, impulsive hug. 'I'm so glad you're here, Katie. These evenings are such torturedo you think we could make a run for it?'
Kate's nose wrinkled in her exquisite face. 'No such luck. Maud is keeping her eagle eye on us, and has already told me that if we scarper early she'll make us pay.'
Sorcha groaned, and at that moment caught the eye of the woman in questionMaud Harriday, doyenne of the fashion industry and head of Models Inc, the agency in New York she and Kate worked for. And who was, for want of a better term, their surrogate mother.
She smiled sunnily until Maud's laser like gaze was distracted by something else, then stifled a huge yawn. They'd both been up since the crack of dawn for work that day, albeit for different catwalk shows.
Kate grabbed a passing waiter and took two glasses of champagne, handing one to Sorcha. She didn't normally drink the stuff but took it anyway, for appearances'sake. Maud liked her models to look as though they were enjoying themselvesespecially when they were on show right in the middle of the mayhem of New York's Fashion Week in one of New York's finest hotels, rubbing shoulders with some of the most important people in media, fashion and politics.
Sorcha smiled and clinked glasses with Kate. 'Thanks. I always feel like some kind of brood mare at these functions don't you?'
Kate was looking around with interest. 'Oh, I don't know, Sorch ' She affected the broad accents of Maud's famous New York drawl, and repeated her pep talk of earlier. '"This is the one time in the year we get to promote the new faces along with the old."' She nudged Sorcha playfully and said, sotto voce, 'At the grand age of twenty-five we're the old, in case you hadn't noticed 'She continued with her strident imitation. '" and we generate business. These are the people who invest in you, the fashion advertisers who pay your bills, so go out there and look gorgeous."'
Sorcha threw back her head and laughed. 'She'd kill you if she heard you.'
The contrast of their beauty side by sideone blonde, the other darkdrew many gazes in their direction. They shared an easy intimacy that came from a long friendship that had started when Kate had gone to Sorcha's boarding school in Ireland, just outside Dublin.
Kate spoke again, bringing Sorcha's attention back from its wanderings. Her voice was deceptively light. 'Plenty of gorgeous guys here tonight, Sorch '
A tightness came into Sorcha's face. She was recalling a recent heated discussion with her friend, and she had no desire to rake over the same ground now. No desire to go back down memory lane, where a comment like that was inevitably headed.
'Kate, let's not get into that again, please.'The entreaty in her clear blue eyes was explicit. Kate was her best friendthe one person who knew her like no other, who had seen her at her worst. The familiar guilt rose up, the feeling of debt. Even though she knew Kate would never mention it or use it against her. To her relief she saw her friend nod slightly.
'Ok, you're off the hook for now. But it's just you are one of the most beautiful women I know, inside and out. I just wish'
Sorcha took Katie's hand, halting her words. Her voice was husky. 'Thanks, Katie but, really, just leave it for nowOK?'
It hadn't been hard to seek her out in the crowd. From her pictures alone she would have been easy to find, apart from the fact that she stood out effortlesslya pale foil of beauty next to so much artifice and expensively acquired tan.
He watched the interplay between the two women covertly. He'd heard their laughter before he'd caught sight of her, and had been surprised to find that it had come from his quarry. It had floated across the room and wound its way around his senses. The sparkling smile was still on her face as she talked to her friend. He hated to admit it, but they weren't like the other models, fawning over the men in the crowd. They looked like two children in the corner, playing truant. Bizarrely, because he wasn't given to such whims, it made him want to be a part of it
She stood out in every possible way, with long wavy jet-black hair falling below her bare shoulders. In a strapless, high-waisted dress, the pale swell of her bosom hinted at a voluptuousness that was not usual for a top model, and her poise and grace screamed years of practice. The bluest of blue eyes were ringed by dark lashes, and he could see from across the room skin so pale he imagined that up close it would look translucent.
That niggle of dissatisfaction was coming back even stronger. Not usually given to any kind of introspection, Romain ruthlessly crushed it. Still watching the woman, he found his interest piqued beyond what he'd expected to be purely a quick professional once-over to confirm his own opinion and even more so because she wasn't trying to capture his attention. His mouth compressed. That in itself was unusual.
He'd already decided he didn't want to use her especially in light of her past notoriety but, watching her now, he had to admit that on the face of it she would actually be perfect for what they were looking for. His instincts, honed over many years in the business, told him that in a second. Whether she'd contrived it or not, the smiling, sparkling animation on Sorcha Murphy's face effortlessly held his regard. Usually within these circles models were always so careful to put on some kind of front that any real expression had long been suppressedeither behaviourally or surgically.
He felt an almost overwhelming impulse to see her up close, and before he could control himself it had generated a throb of desire that wasn't usually prompted so arbitrarily. It was a response he couldn't control and which took him by surpriseagain.Ithad been the last thing he'd expected to feel when faced with her.
'Beautiful, aren't they? I see that you've found her.'
He started at the low, husky voice that came from his right and was a little shocked at how enthralled he'd become. Had he been that obvious? He quickly schooled his face, but the woman beside him wasn't fooled, and he was thankful that he knew her wellthat it was only she who had noticed his momentarily unguarded few seconds. His mouth quirked before he gave her a kiss on both cheeks, and she mock-fluttered her lashes.
'If I was still capable of blushing, my dear Romain, then I'd be red as a beetroot.'
'I'm sure,'he quipped dryly. She was at supreme ease in these gilded surroundings, and he couldn't imagine this veritable woman of steel blushing for anyone or anything.
'So how are you, ma chére tante?'
She patted his cheek with her fana trademark eccentric accessoryand smiled affectionately. 'Very well, thank you. We are honoured to have a man of your calibre here. I'm so glad that for once our work interests have dovetailed so neatly as I never see you any morealthough I don't imagine that the promise of a room full of beautiful women would have been any incentive?'
Romain tutted. 'First you flatter me, then you show what a low opinion you really have '
'Hmm,' she said dryly. 'With pictures of you in numerous magazines courting what would appear to be every single model in Europe, I can see why you might want to seek out new pastures.'
He was used to this affectionate, teasing banter, though he would not have tolerated it in a million years from anyone else. He looked absently around the room. His aunt's words had hit their mark, and he had to curb a defensive desire to tell her exactly how long it had been since he had taken a lover. It didn't sit well with him to admit that even that area of his life seemed to be suffering.
Yet Sorcha Murphy stayed in his peripheral vision. It unnerved him, forcing him to say lightly, 'Now, you of all people should know that you can't believe everything you read in the press.'
'I don't know how you keep managing to generate all those billions of yours when you hardly seem to have the time. Always wining and dining'
'Maud 'he said warningly, but in a completely unconscious gesture his eyes flicked away briefly to seek out Sorcha again. His aunt couldn't fail to notice.
'Ah, yes So, what do you think?'
He shrugged nonchalantly. 'I'm still not sure '
Sometimes the older woman was far too shrewd for her own good. And she knew him too well.
She continued blithely, 'Her blonde companion is Kate Lancaster, an old schoolfriend. She's also one of the highest paid models working in the USoriginally from London via Dublin.'
Romain kept his expression bland with little effort. Years of controlling his emotions, of never allowing anyone to see inside his head came like second nature and dictated his actions. Affecting acute boredom, he ran his eyes over the friend.
The blonde was indeed exquisitestunning. A sensual invitation of honeyed, lissome beauty. And Nothing. No reaction. He had to remind himself his goal wasn't to pursue personal pleasure tonight. Even if catching his first sight of Sorcha Murphy had driven that thought from his mind and body.
He flicked his eyes back to Sorcha and felt his entire insides jolt again as though given an electric shock. He shrugged negligently, his hooded eyes hiding his reaction.
His aunt, apparently unaware of his efforts to appear blasé, saw his gaze resting on her. 'So does she live up to her portfolio?'
'Of course. I wouldn't expect anything less from one of your models, Maud.'
He could feel his aunt preen beside him. She was nothing if not the best in the business for a reason.
'The question remains, however,' he drawled lightly, 'if she's got what it takes for a gruelling campaign, and whether she has in fact reformed from her wild ways ' He could sense his aunt bristle, and looked down into her flashing eyes. If he cast aspersions on one of her girls, then he cast aspersions on her.
'Romain, I won't tell you again. That was a long time ago. Not everyone is like your'
'Maud ' he said warningly, with more than a hint of steel in his tone this time.
His aunt pursed her lips before saying, somewhat more tentatively, 'I assure you that I've never had a day's trouble with her. She's polite, punctual. Photographers and stylists love her.'
'You forget that I was working in the City in London eight years ago, when the tabloids were full of Sorcha Quinn, enfant terrible The pictures and headlines are easy to conjure up again. It's not so long ago, and this campaign well, it's sensitive.'
His aunt was beginning to sound exasperated. He knew she'd be coming to the end of her patience any minute now.
'And as I recall you didn't hold back your opinion then either, Romain. If she's survived to be here today under consideration for this job then you at least owe her a fair chance. It's not as if she came out of all that unscathed. It's why she changed her name to Murphywhich is how you didn't recognise her straight away when your board suggested her.'
The uncomfortable prickling assailed him again. He hadn't recognised her. In fact something in her pictures had reached out and touched him. In a place he'd prefer not to look. Thankfully his aunt was still talking, and it was easy to divert his thoughts.
'That's all behind her, Romain. I have a reputation to maintain too, believe me, and if there'd ever been a hint of trouble she'd have been out. I wouldn't have her on my books otherwise.'
Romain snorted discreetly. No leopard changed its spots so completely. He didn't doubt that quite a few of his aunt's models lived in such a way that if they were ever found out they'd be off the Models Inc register so fast their heads would spin. No. Women like Sorcha Murphy would keep their dirty little habits a secret. And if there was one thing he was fanatical about, it was that he never went near women involved with drugs. Professionally or socially. The very thought made his chest constrict with dark memories.
'I know you, Romain,'his aunt continued, sounding more confident. 'If you were seriously concerned about Sorcha Murphy's reputation you wouldn't have even considered her for this. Your board of directors obviously have no qualms about her past '
His aunt had a point. And she didn't know that it was largely Sorcha's past and apparent redemption that had made them so keen to use her. For him, things weren't so straightforward.He stared across the room, finding it hard to tear his gaze away. Something was keeping him looking. Just as it had with her pictures. Some hint of vulnerability? A quality that many models failed abysmally to recreate for the camera. How could someone who looked so pure, so innocent, have been oras was most likelystill be caught up in such a murky, corrupt world?
Just as he was thinking this, and feeling a surprising feeling of disappointment rushing through his veins, Sorcha Murphy looked across the room, almost as if she could sense the weight of his penetrating gaze. Their eyes locked. Blue and grey. And the world stopped turning.