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'I can't believe I agreed to come here.' Cally looked around her, slowly taking in the decadent atmosphere in the hip Sydney bar. It was like Bacchanaliariotous revelry. There were well over one hundred women filling the place with laughter, leer and enough bling to blind the nation. Canapés were being consumed with glee and being washed down with terrifyingly neon concoctions. High-pitched chatter drowned the relentless deep thud, thud, thud of the music. Anticipation hung in the air. You could taste the excitement, the expectation of one hell of a good show.
Cally screwed up her nose.
'Oh, come on.' Mel looked at her with a 'get a grip' expression. 'It's for charity.'
'There are better ways of raising money for charity.'
'What's better than watching a line-up of the most eligible bachelors in town?'
'If they were that eligible they wouldn't be here.'
'They must be the most conceited meat-heads to agree to participate.' The snark was enough to earn her another 'get over it' look.
'Don't be so uptight.' Mel shook her head disparagingly. 'You've been working way too hard. They're doing it to support a good cause. It's a laugh. A laugh.' Another pointed look. 'Remember how to do that? Open your mouth, go "ha ha"?'
'You know I'm damn good at laughing.' Cally sighed. 'I'm just not in the mood for this kind of funny tonight.'
'Well, down your Sex in the Surf or whatever that drink is called, and get yourself in the mood. Sit back, enjoy the show. Nobody says you have to bid. Buy a few raffle tickets and be done with it.'
Mel was right. But the scene didn't sit well with Cally. It was so far removed from the cause it was supposed to besupporting. Here they were, draped with all this moneyconspicuous consumption to the max. Half these people probably wouldn't give a second thought to those who this event was supposed to be helping. They were paying lip servicejust wanting to get together with a gang of girlfriends and ogle some talent. Bitch over someone else's dress. Out to outdo and be seen doing it.
It was the kind of thing her mother would love. She'd be here, out-glamorising even the most glamorous and providing sound bites in the style of a Miss Universe save-the-world speech. Fortunately she was away sunning herself on a beach in the Mediterranean somewhere.
Cally grimaced as she glanced round again. Nope. So not her scene. She preferred to stay out of the limelight her mother had always sought. Yes, she had money. Yes, she felt a responsibility to do charitable work. But her father had taught her how much more fun it was to do something behind the scenes, or to donate anonymously. When he died she'd made a vow to continue his work and so had maintained strong connections with his favourite charitythe homeless shelter only a few blocks from the opulent home in which she'd spent her happiest childhood years. She loved the time she put into it feeling as if it was a way of retaining links with him, wanting to do something that she knew would have made him proud.
Mel cleared her throat and glared again. 'Must you be so earnest, Cally? For heaven's sake, have another drink. Or one of those chocolate truffles.'
Cally grinned at that. Actually the chocolate truffles were pretty divine. She pulled the plate nearer. Half the women here wouldn't touch them anyway, so Cally could have their share. Then she gave herself a rebuke over her pathetic holier-than-thou moment. Many of these women gave time as well as money to charity. One of the wealthiest women in the room spent a night a week answering calls on a youth helpline. And, while she might come across as if nothing mattered more than the colour of the dressing rooms in her new guest wing, the way she could listen to and calm distressed teens was incredible.
The music got even louder, and the MC appeared on stage. Applause filled the air. The show was about to start. Biting into another truffle, Cally sat back and acknowledged that maybe Mel was right. Man candy. So what if people were buying some hunky company? She wasn't shopping. She'd just watch, be amused by the craziness, try not to feel cheapened, buy a few raffle tickets and donate a chunk on the quiet later. She sipped from her wide-rimmed glass and as she relaxed the first man for sale appeared.
'I can't believe I agreed to come here.' Blake looked around him thunderstruck. 'I know I didn't agree to this.'
'I thought you meant some kind of working bee. You said a spot of gardening, cleaning up.'
'And that's exactly what you'll be doing.'
Blake gave Judith, his PA, a look of withering disbelief. Not if the sound of those braying women was anything to go by. 'I really don't think so.'
She'd insisted they come straight from the office, he'd been working late. So here he was after a long day, in his suit, needing a shave. He ran his fingers through his hair to stop him exiting the scene. For a second he wished he smoked so he could do something to relieve the stress. Honestly, meeting with a roomful of sceptical investors had nothing on this. This sounded worse than a bear pit. Now he knew how those gladiators had felt back in the Roman days. The first poor guy had gone on and the howls from the divas in the audience were deafening. Then he heard the bidding begin and the feeling of panic, mixed with distaste, rose.
'Give the organisers my apologies. I'll make a donation. Large as you like. But I'm not sticking around for this.'
Judith blocked his exit from the room. Not hard given that she was wider than a small van at the moment. She rubbed at the swell of her belly and looked at him with the beseeching eyes of a homeless puppy. Only hers were blue not brown and there was an irrepressible twinkle in them. 'You're not really going to leave, are you?'
'You can't. I said you'd be here.' She switched to rubbing the small of her back. The action pushed her belly out even further. 'Blake, please. You promised.'
She wasn't laying it on with a trowel but by the wheelbarrow. Dump truck even.
His eyes narrowed. 'The sooner you go on maternity leave, the better.'
She smiled sweetly. 'I knew you wouldn't let me down.'
Like most men, Blake found it pretty difficult to say no to the pleas of a pregnant woman. But while Judith knew she could play on it, she didn't know the real reason why. There wasn't much Blake wouldn't do to keep a pregnant woman happy. He didn't want to bear any more of a burden than he already didone lost child was too much as it was.
He watched as she made her way to the door with her slower than usualbut still pretty quickgait. He hadn't been joking. She might have been leaning on her pregnancy vulnerability just then, but he'd noticed how tired she'd been these last couple of weeks. Her husband was a fool. No wife of Blake's would be working through her pregnancynot any of it. She'd be at home being cared for and not racing around.
He'd tried to lighten Judith's workload for her, but she'd laughed at him. Saying she was pregnant, not sick, and that she was as capable as ever of the multitude of tasks he required of her. And, employment law being what it was, he had to let her. He still thought her husband would have more ability to slow her down. But he was so besotted he said yes to anything. Whatever made her happy, made him happy. Blake grimaced. He couldn't ever see himself giving that kind of power to another. Self-sufficiency was the way to success.
Then again, hadn't he failed to say no to Judith just now? His frown deepened and his sympathy for her husband grew. Her maternity leave definitely couldn't come soon enough. And right now Blake had other things to worry aboutlike being paraded in front of a room full of women wanting to bid for the 'catch of the day'.
His turn edged closer. He went and stood in the wings, peeked through a tiny gap in the curtain out to the audience. He knew full well Judith had misled him about this 'charity fundraiser'. OK, not misled, but not filled in all the info on the page. He scanned the crowd. Women who'd probably never got their hands dirty. Never ever come into contact with the people this event was supposedly going to help. The homeless, the hopeless, the destitute, the desperate. They'd have no idea, here they were just doing their 'bit' for charity.
He listened to the high-pitched shrieks of laughter as the latest victim suffered the humiliation of being priced. This was shaping up to be one of the most embarrassing evenings of his life. But, as Judith had said, he'd made a promise and Blake McKay always kept his promises. He turned away from the audience, thrust back his shoulders and gave himself the pep talk. Whatever he did, he did to the best of his ability. This was how he'd climbed rung by rung from the bottom of the heap to the top. With sheer grit and determination to be the best. And so, if they wanted a man to perform, he'd be their mantheir 'He-Slave'. He loosened his tie a little. Ran his fingers through his hair to give him even more of the tousled long-day-at-the-office look. He looked across the backstage area at a couple of the other poor souls who'd been railroaded into 'performing' for charity. Saw one of them down a neat whisky. He flashed him a tight grin. Then Judith was back, telling him he was next up.
It wouldn't be the first time Blake had used his body like this. He'd sold out before. Women found him attractive, thought he was handsome. He'd been paid good money to trade his looks. He knew he was above the shallowness, the insincerity. Just keep it light. Think of the moneythink of the charity. His time as a model all those years ago had taught him that women loved the brooding look. Not a problem. He really was broodingon the revenge he'd have on his PA the minute she got back to work on Monday.
He listened to the words of introduction in disbelief. Judith, grinning at him from the opposite wings, had done a fine job in talking up his assets. He'd come up with some hideous filing task to keep her bored for hours on Monday. Then his name rang out and, with a deep breath and a muttered curse, he stormed onto the stage, automatically moving his feet in time to the beat of the loud music. Once he got to the centre he stopped, stood. Clenching his jaw, he stared out. The audience was semi-lit. He could see sparkle and lipstick and hair everywhere. The blonde highlights dazzled. He carefully looked over the audience, happy to take his time. He walked closer to the edge of the stage, so he could window-shop as obviously as they were window-shopping him. Never show you were intimidated. He would at least pretend to be in control of this situation. Bluff through until he had them.
He caught sight of one particularly blinding blonde and sent her a small smile. The shrieks increased. He turned, walked in the other direction. Blow hot, blow cold. Women were fickle creatures. He knew how to keep them keen; he also knew not to trust them, certainly never to take them seriously.
But while his heart was permanently locked away from their clutches, his body didn't mind messing around now and then. The adrenalin kicked in, and he almost, almost, began to enjoy it. He winked at another screamer. Raise money, get the bids up, up, up.
He almost missed her, his eyes nearly passing over without seeing, except her stillness marked her out in the clapping, cheering crowd. She was the shadow to the blonde and beje-weled beside her. Her dark hair hung in a neat bob. Glossy and sleek, it enhanced her pale skin, ruby lips, the gentle curve of her cheek. She was staring at him. Not moving. Not talking. Not laughing or even nodding in time to the beat. Eerily still in the room full of chaos. He paused, for a second forgetting what he was supposed to be doing.
Stick-figure women dressed in black usually didn't do it for him. But this woman wasn't stick-thin and on her the black emphasized her creaminessher full creaminess. His muscles tightened that little bit, a small flame sparking inside.
She wasn't shrieking, like the blonde next to her. She wasn't even smiling. But she was staring. A cool look that had him wanting to shake the reserve from her. He was seized with the desire to make her move. To make her sway, make her want, and above all he wanted to wipe that icy look of condescension from her face. She was judging. He was not a man to be judged. Not by her. Not in the negative way she so obviously was.
Blake liked his coffee strong and dark, a little bitter. He was looking right at a very tempting espresso. For, despite the lack of smile, despite the patent disapproval, there was fire in her eyes.
The blonde beside her was grinning widelyat her rather than at him. She didn't seem to notice, she was too busy giving him that scornful look. For a long moment he stood as still as she sat. His jaw clenched, fists curled, and a wash of begrudging desire ran through himdesire to prove her wrong, to prove a point.
It became imperative not just to raise some money here, but some serious money. If he was going to sell himself, it would be for the highest price. At that he realized he'd better get back to the parading bit. For charity, he told himself, gritting his teeth and flashing a genuine tortured look.
He forced himself to relax, to smile at the harpy at the table on the other side, who had enough volume to drown out a crowd at a football match all by herself.
The experience from photographic shoots and catwalk struts came flooding back, his muscles remembering the way to move. With ease he prowled the length of the stage and back, pausing to deliver the 'look' now and then. He felt strangely energised, as if he were the one hunting out the prey, not the other way round. And he knew who his target would be this evening.