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“I’m sorry, Miss McKenna, but Mr. O’Brien refuses to see you.” The security guard at the desk in the lobby of the high-rise apartment building returned the phone to its cradle. There was a trace of genuine regret in his face as he regarded the disappointed expression of the young woman across from him.
Kelly bit her lower lip, and her jade green eyes darkened to almost emerald. She hadn’t really expected any other answer than the one transmitted to her by the guard, but she had admitted to a hope that O’Brien would miraculously change his mind and see her. Her lips curved in a wry smile. What a miracle that would have been! Nick O’Brien’s antipathy toward journalists and the media was practically legend. He had been refusing both her written requests for an interview and all her phone calls for over three weeks now. She sighed. She hadn’t wanted to use the wild card that might gain her entrance to his presence, but now it seemed that she had no choice.
She reached into her voluminous bone leather shoulder bag, drew out a long white business envelope, and handed it to the burly, gray-haired security guard. Her glowingly appealing smile was the same one that once had gotten her past the bodyguard of a South American dictator. And the article resulting from that had earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The memory made her feel even more confident . . . and bold. “I wonder if you could possibly give this to Mr. O’Brien for me,” she pleaded softly. Her wide-set jade green eyes in their extravagant frame of dark lashes were brimming with a distress that was only half feigned. “I’m sure there must be some mistake. If you’ll just give him this envelope, I’m positive that everything will be straightened out in no time.”
The security guard shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t know, Miss McKenna,” he said uneasily. “I’m not supposed to leave my desk without a replacement. The building manager would have my job if he happened to drop by and I wasn’t on duty.” Despite his protests, his face softened infinitesimally as he gazed at the young woman before him. There was something very appealing about Kelly McKenna. She had an aura of breathless, wide-eyed eagerness, as if just living was a vividly exciting adventure.
Her ash blond hair was now sun-streaked to almost white gold in places. It was cut so that it clustered about her face, ears, and the nape of her neck in a riot of silken, glossy curls that tempted a man to wrap the strands around his fingers. The most arresting feature of her thin face was her magnificent green eyes. Her lips were well defined and had a curve that was sweetly memorable. She had a vaguely fragile air about her that was belied by her golden tan and the determined tilt of her chin.
That chin was squared now as Kelly McKenna said persuasively, “I’ll be glad to fill in for you until you get back. It will only take you a moment, and I can handle anything that comes along. I earned my black belt in karate last summer.”
The security guard disguised a chuckle as a cough. Kelly McKenna couldn’t be more than an inch or two over five feet tall and except for her height, she looked like a fashion model. Her designer blouse was left open stylishly to display just a hint of cleavage; her rust suede skirt was slit to the thigh in front to reveal tantalizing glimpses of shapely limbs, emphasized by knee-length high-heeled boots. She looked about as lethal as a baby fresh from its evening bath.
He took the envelope and rose slowly. “In that case I’ll feel safe to leave you in charge,” he said solemnly, his eyes twinkling. “You watch sharp now.” He moved briskly to the elevator and pressed the button for the penthouse, leaving Kelly to stare after him with satisfaction mixed with a tinge of displeasure.
It certainly wasn’t the first time she had encountered indulgent condescension from the male sex, she thought crossly, but still it never failed to irritate her. She was well aware that her size and general air of fragile femininity were deceptive, but it took a good deal of effort to convince men of that! Most of the time she found it wasn’t worth the effort and saved her strength for the more important battles that faced a woman photojournalist in a field dominated by men. When she was first starting out, she’d thought her “image” was very important and, trying to look anything but delicate and feminine, she’d chosen a wardrobe of only pantsuits and jeans. But she soon found that she was defeating her purpose. The day she had overheard herself described as “cute and cuddly” in a pair of shapeless bib overalls, she’d grimly abandoned that fruitless strategy.
This afternoon she was wearing the most sophisticated outfit in her entire wardrobe; even it hadn’t caused the security guard to treat her with respect for her maturity, she mused. It certainly didn’t bode well for her coming confrontation with Nick O’Brien, who was a much more dangerous proposition. She had done extensive, in-depth research on O’Brien before approaching him for this interview. What she had learned would have intimidated her under normal circumstances . . . if only it weren’t for that blasted bet she’d made with her editor, Mac Devlin!
Then she chuckled and shook her head ruefully. She wasn’t being honest with herself. The more difficult or dangerous an assignment, the more she enjoyed it, and Mac had known that when he’d made that damned bet with her. She was well aware that Devlin was manipulating her, but the challenge had been irresistible when he had thrown the assignment at her and sweetened it with a wager that he knew she couldn’t refuse.
When she’d returned from the Mideast six weeks earlier and had to be hospitalized with a bout of malaria, Mac had adamantly refused to give her any further overseas assignments for at least six months. Despite her pleas, threats, and constant nagging, he had remained unmoved for three weeks. Then he’d dangled the lifting of the ban as his part of the wager she was now engaged in. If she lost the bet, she was to accept his edict and cease her efforts to change his mind.
“You were right, Miss McKenna,” the security guard said genially, as he stepped from the elevator. “Mr. O’Brien said you were to go right up.”
I just bet he did, Kelly thought. “Step into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly. She squared her shoulders and rewarded the guard with a warm smile. “Thank you, you’ve been very kind,” she said sincerely, stepping into the elevator and pressing the button.
When she got out of the elevator, she took one final deep breath and composed her features into an expression, she hoped, of bland sophistication. Then she knocked firmly on the paneled teak door of O’Brien’s apartment. It was opened immediately by the man himself, and Kelly felt her mouth fall open in surprise before she quickly regained her composure.
Nick O’Brien’s dazzling good looks were quite familiar to her, for she had been observing him for three weeks, but she had never seen him at such close range or seen quite so much of him. The man was wearing nothing but a white bath towel, which was wrapped casually about his hips, and he was as unconcerned as if he were dressed in black tie and tails. Though if more men possessed such overpoweringly virile physiques, perhaps nudity would have been the mode, Kelly thought dazedly. She had never before seen such a gorgeous man. A little over six feet, he was all bronze muscular power. A triangular pelt of springy dark hair covered his broad chest before narrowing to a thin line and disappearing into the towel draped around his hips.
“Enjoying yourself?” O’Brien drawled, and Kelly felt the color flood her face as her gaze flew guiltily from his taut, hard stomach to his face.
“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered, moistening her lips nervously. “Did I get you out of the shower? I can wait until you dress.” So much for her cool, sophisticated facade, she thought disgustedly. Damn it, why did the man have to be so attractive? His golden bronze complexion and shining, coal black hair reminded her of a modern-day Montezuma. His brilliant aquamarine eyes were startlingly beautiful. From her dossier on him, she knew his mother had been of Mexican descent and his father Irish-American, but who would have believed that the combination would produce this magnetic attractiveness?
His gaze was very sharp as it slowly traveled from the top of her curly blond head to her small booted feet. “I wasn’t in the shower,” he said coolly. “I’m doing some yoga exercises.” Then his gaze fastened on her face, and Kelly felt suddenly that she’d been analyzed, categorized, and was now being filed away somewhere in the computer banks behind that lazy smile. “I admit that I was curious to see what kind of seductress had tempted our stalwart security guard from his post. I was going to look you over, and then I was going to chew you up in little pieces, Miss McKenna.”
The last sentence was said with such geniality that Kelly at first thought he was joking until she saw the hard, ruthless curve of his mouth. She bristled indignantly and was about to reply when he threw open the door and stepped aside. “Instead, I think that I’ll listen to what you have to say. You’re not at all what I expected, Goldilocks. It may prove to be amusing.”
Kelly sailed past him regally. Any remorse she might have felt about the distasteful method she’d been forced to use to get to see O’Brien had vanished with his rude arrogance. Goldilocks, indeed!
“How condescending of you, Mr. O’Brien,” she said icily, as she walked briskly down the foyer steps into the sunken living room. “I’ll try to be entertaining.” She was infuriated to hear an amused chuckle behind her, which she pointedly ignored, and proceeded to gaze disdainfully around her. However, as she moved to the center of the room, she found it increasingly difficult to maintain the pose. She was attracted in spite of herself, to the splendidly tranquil beauty of the room.
The decor had a distinctly oriental flavor--ambiguously opulent yet restrained. The plush, ice blue wall-to-wall carpet was the only Western note in a room that was as unusual as the man who had created it. There was no furniture in the room at all except for a lovely low teak table in front of the fireplace. There was a midnight blue velvet mat on the carpet in front of the table; the mat was surrounded by nile green, cerulean, and cream pillows. A bronze screen with beautifully engraved peacocks occupied one corner of the room, and the walls were covered with original paintings obviously chosen for their serenity and delicacy of color.
She turned away from an unusually fine Renoir to say sincerely, “What a heavenly place to live. Is the rest of the apartment like this?”
There was an odd flicker behind his blue eyes. “No, the rest of the apartment is more Western in decor,” he said slowly, his eyes on her glowing face. “I find a blend of cultures suits me better than a total devotion to one.” He gestured mockingly to the midnight blue velvet mat. “Won’t you sit down? You’ll find it surprisingly comfortable.”
Kelly seated herself carefully, her eyes fixed warily on O’Brien as he dropped gracefully down beside her. It seemed that her offer to wait until O’Brien was more suitably dressed was being ignored; his nudity obviously didn’t bother him at all. She wished that she could say the same. The proximity of all that virile muscular flesh was having a most peculiar effect on her heartbeat and respiration. She drew a deep breath hoping that O’Brien had not noticed. It seemed that he hadn’t, for his gaze was fixed with definite admiration on the expanse of silken thighs revealed by the slit in her skirt. Kelly instinctively tried to draw the skirt closed, but it was impossible in her half-reclining position.
“You know, I may decide to redecorate the rest of the apartment, after all,” he said, his eyes still on her naked thighs. “It’s beginning to look increasingly attractive to me.”
Kelly gave up the battle with the skirt and looked up at him crossly. “It may be lovely, but it’s definitely not meant for western apparel. Don’t your guests find it a bit awkward?”
He shrugged, then leaned back against the pillows. “On the contrary, I find it relaxes them and is much more conducive to the lowering of social barriers.” His lips quirked slightly. “It’s a little like going back to the womb. Haven’t you noticed how children gravitate naturally to the earth? It’s practically instinctive for them to avoid chairs in favor of the floor.”
“I hadn’t realized that,” Kelly said thoughtfully. “But you’re right. I remember that as a child my father was always telling me to get off the floor and sit properly like a lady.”
“And that was such a long time ago,” O’Brien scoffed gently, his gaze on the glossy, sun-streaked curls that framed her face. “You’re not much more than a baby now.”
Kelly bristled indignantly and tried to draw herself up haughtily. Unfortunately, she found the move only further opened the slit in her skirt, a fact that added to her displeasure. “That was some time ago, actually,” she said coolly. “I’m twenty-three years old, Mr. O’Brien, and I’ve been a photojournalist since I was nineteen. If you’d care to check my credentials, you’ll find that I’m quite respected in my profession.”
“Oh, I thoroughly approve of your credentials,” he said mischievously, his gaze returning to her thighs. “Although I’m not at all sure of your ethics.” He picked up the envelope that he had dropped on the low teak table and waved it at her carelessly. “I believe that blackmail tactics are still frowned upon by most responsible journalists.”
Kelly flushed and bit her lip, her jade green eyes wide with distress. “How would you know?” she asked belligerently. “You haven’t seen fit to give any of us an interview since you were sixteen, Mr. O’Brien. That hardly makes you a competent judge.”
O’Brien’s lips thinned, and his expression became bitter. “You think not? I was a qualified expert on the members of your profession while you were still in diapers, Goldilocks. I had to put up with the circus they made of my life when I was a child, but I’ll never be put in that position again.”
From the Paperback edition.