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The men in the bar of the fancy London hotel had laughingly agreed that Tara should get out more. The better-looking of the two, a tall, powerfully built man called Lucien, with striking dark looks and thick nut-brown hair, argued with Tara's older sister, Freya, that there was no such thing as 'too quiet', and if Tara didn't want to party hard, why should she? Having flashed him a grateful glance, Tara sank back into the shadows with relief.
To get close to her sister was all eighteen-year-old Tara had ever wanted, but she was beginning to wonder if it was possible to get close to a flame that burned as bright as Freya. Maybe this was the way, Tara reflected later as she squeezed into some of her sister's clothes. The two girls had returned to their bedsit alone and were preparing to go out with the men they'd met earlier. Freya was always encouraging Tara to socialise, and tonight Tara felt it was a chance for her to prove she would do pretty much anything to win Freya's approval.
But not that, Tara thought, as the face of the man who had defended her earlier swam into her mind. Lucien's dark chocolate voice and black amused gaze had made her feel so nervous. He belonged to that other, more exciting world, the world Freya yearned to inhabit, the world in which Tara knew she didn't fit.
Freya thought nothing of talking to men they didn't know, but it was agony for Tara, who had hardly raised her eyes during the whole embarrassing encounter. She had felt so tongue-tied and gauche, so fat and so plain in her charity shop clothes, perched next to a glamorous older sister who drew attention wherever she went. She had wanted to disappear, and had only looked up once more whenshe'd been forced to answer the Lucien's direct question: 'Shouldn't you be studying?'
Instead of picking up men in a bar, she had presumed he meant. She had told him she did study, but by then, of course, Freya had moved the conversation on, wanting nothing to detract from the flirtatious tone she'd set. When Tara mentioned the remark later, Freya had laughed it off, saying Tara mustn't let it get to her, and that she had the rest of her life to study, and must use her youth to snare a man
Tara's face was burning with humiliation as she thought about this now, though in fairness Freya had been partly right, for whatever he'd said about studying, Lucien, with the exotic accent, whose knowing gaze had sent flames of heat pulsing through her secret places, had asked Freya to make sure her little sister accompanied her to the party tonight.
Why had he done that? Tara wondered, going hot and cold as she thought about it. She already felt ridiculous, sitting here in their draughty bedsit, drenched in Freya's French perfume and wearing a body control underskirt Freya had said she must to create the right first impression. The second impression didn't bear thinking about. She'd have to be cut out of this top, just for starters.
'Stop fiddling with that top, Tara,' Freya insisted, breaking off from skilfully applying false eyelashes to admonish her. 'It cost a fortune'
'Sorry ' Freya had insisted she must wear something glamorous tonight, and had pushed the spangled top into her hands. She was about to stop fiddling as instructed when Freya snatched it back.
'I've decided to wear it. You can have this one'
'Thank you ' It was such a relief to exchange the glittery top Freya had picked out for her to wear, for an older, duller boob tube with a much more modest neckline.
'I hope you know your man's a count?' Freya pouted in the mirror as she applied her lip gloss.
'A count?' Tara's heart rate doubled. 'Really?' No wonder Lucien, the man who made her pulse race, was so confident and commanding. But since when was he her man? And if he was her man, what on earth was she supposed to do with him, never mind the fact that he was a count! She would never think of a thing to say to interest a man like that.
'You're a very lucky girl. It's up to you to make the most of tonight. Who knows ?'
Who knew what? Tara wondered, struggling to heave the Freya-sized Lycra top over her head. She raised a hesitant smile to please her sister. One thing was sure, she didn't know anything about that stuff, although her determination to better herself was no less than Freya's. There might not be room for a desk in their tiny room, but the books she was studying were kept safely under the bed.
'Here, put this wrap on' Freya tossed what looked like a fabulous genuine fur in her direction.
'I'd rather not' Tara shrank from the deep white pelt. In her imagination it still carried the faint scent of fresh air and freedom.
'Why ever not?' Freya demanded impatiently.
'I might spill something on it' She hoped Freya was convinced by her excuse.
'Oh, all right then.' Freya pulled a face as she sorted through the tumble of clothes on her side of the bed. 'Take this shawl instead.'
Tara thought the pale blue shawl much prettier than the fur. Stroking it appreciatively, she thought about Freya's explanation for this fabulous collection of expensive things. 'Men like to buy me presents,' Freya had said, 'and what's wrong with that?' Nothing, Tara thought now, smiling fondly at her beautiful sister. Who wouldn't want to buy Freya gifts? When you lived like this and looked like Freya, no wonder her poor sister yearned for something better.
'What's that sigh for?' Freya demanded suspiciously as Tara started clearing up Freya's discarded tissues.
'Nothing ' Realising Freya had thought her sigh a complaint, Tara rushed to lay out her sister's coat and bag.
'See to yourself,' Freya snapped. 'I left that skirt out for you specially. Come on, Tara,' she chivvied as Tara viewed the tight skirt dubiously, 'we mustn't be late. And you can leave those cushions,' Freya snapped, bringing Tara to a standstill. 'They don't need plumping. I don't know why you bought them in the first place. No one's going to see them. For goodness' sake, stop tidying the room. You'll get all hot and bothered and we don't want that.'
What Freya did want from tonight made Tara very nervous. She knew she was destined to be a failure, because Lucien wasn't interested in her, and anything nice he'd said was just him being kind. That hadn't stopped her daydreams, which had a very dark edge to them, for they contained a lot of kissing and touching, which she knew was wrong.
She wasted some precious time fighting with the back zip on the skirt Freya had lent her, which was at least two sizes too small. In the end, she was forced to give up. Flashing a guilty glance at Freya, who thankfully hadn't noticed, she left the skirt open an inch or two at the top and folded the fabric over.
'Ready?' Freya demanded, snatching up her smart new red patent bag.
Ready to try not to show Freya up, Tara thought anxiously, straightening her tights. She hoped she could manage that much.
'Damn, it's so cold in here,' Freya said, rubbing her arms briskly. 'Come on, it's probably several degrees warmer outside.'
'If your fingers weren't half frozen you'd have been ready ages ago,' Tara said, laughing nervously in an attempt to cheer up her sister. She so loved to see Freya smile, but Freya was tense tonight, and Tara didn't need her sister to tell her that a lot hung on the outcome of their meeting with the two men.
Freya soon confirmed these thoughts. 'Don't worry, little sister; I don't plan to be living here much longer.'
Tara blinked at the horror of being separated from Freya. 'What do you mean?'
'I mean there's a big, wide world out there with a lot of wealthy men inhabiting it, men who want a woman just like me.'
'Oh ' Tara bit her bottom lip nervously. Of course Freya deserved a better future, but as her own future rose like an empty canvas in front of her Tara wondered if she would ever get over being separated from her sister. They were orphans and Freya was the only family she had.
'You can always stay on here,' Freya said, continuing to touch up her hair as she spoke. 'Well, it's a start for you, isn't it?' she added, glancing at Tara. 'I'll sign the lease over to you before I go, as, most likely, I'll be living in the south of France'
Tara knew it was the life her beautiful sister deserved, even if it left her feeling hollow inside. She brushed these selfish thoughts away. 'You always think of me.' She smiled, getting off the bed to give Freya a hug.
'Mind my make up,' Freya warned, backing away hastily. 'Now, listen to me,' she began firmly. 'You must make sure that count of yours takes you to his place tonight. He mustn't see this dump'
'He isn't my Count,' Tara ventured, 'and I definitely won't be going home with him'
'I wouldn't be so sure about that.' Freya turned and studied Tara keenly. 'You might be overweight, but you clean up well '
'Not as well as you '
'Ah, well ' Freya sighed with satisfaction as she took one last look at herself in the mirror. 'Hurry, hurry, hurry,' she exclaimed, spinning on her five-inch heels. 'We can't risk anyone poaching our men '
He was restless as he waited for the two girls to arrive. This outing was a first for him. He never accompanied his brother, Guy, on his hunting expeditions, and yet here he was in a high-class pick-up joint, which his brother had persuaded him was the 'in' place that season.
After the encounter with the two women that afternoon he hadn't been able to shake the image of a timid young girl who had wanted to disappear into the shadows. And would have done if he hadn't coaxed her out of them, he remembered, flashing a glance at his watch, wondering what was keeping Tara. An occasion he had been so sure would bore him had acquired piquancy, thanks to her. Tara Devenish must be at least ten years younger than he was, Lucien reflected, though her sister's colourful reputation suggested Tara was no innocent. His body warmed at that thought, and right on cue the door of the exclusive supper club opened and in she walked.
The Count of Ferranbeaux drew the attention of the whole room as he rose to his feet. People sensed the dangerous edge to Lucien's mature elegance and it stopped conversation dead. Lucien was accepting of his physical needs, and after a week of non-stop business meetings even he would have admitted that his libido was in the danger zone, though he could not know that the miasma of testosterone cloaking his muscular frame was almost palpable.
Lucien made a silent note to add a London home to his ever-growing property portfolio. Entertaining in nightclubs wasn't for him, especially not on an evening like this. Tara was even lovelier than he remembered. She was quirkier and a good deal more outlandishly dressed too. Her pencil skirt had clearly been borrowed from her much slimmer sister, and the way she'd been forced to hitch it up had left it a good four inches short of respectable. Her ample breasts were stuffed for the occasion into a tight boob tube that revealed some tempting pale flesh, which for some reason she was trying to cover with a pale blue shawl. Surely, his cynical self calculated, shouldn't she be putting her wares on view rather than hiding them away?
He noticed nothing other than Tara as she walked towards him. He felt her aura of innocence, fear and excitement sweep over him, and when she stopped in front of him and gazed up tremulously he reached for her hand. Bowing over it, he raised it to his lips and, as her gaze sought his face, he felt her tremble.
The evening passed in a blur. The Count was at least ten times more attractive and a good deal more worldly-wise than Tara had remembered. Dressed in an impeccable dinner suit with a crisp white shirt, highly polished shoes and fine black socks, he looked like a film star and couldn't have attracted more attention from all the ladies present had he tried.
Which he didn't, and that was one of the nicest things about him. Even nicer than that was the way he looked after her. It was a little unnerving to begin with, because he was so much older than she was and her imagination insisted on working overtime, conjuring up all sorts of forbidden possibilities, but somehow he managed to make her relax. Then it was like a fairy tale. In her dreams she had always favoured the dark, flashing Latin looks of a Mediterranean hero, and Lucien Maxime, the Count of Ferranbeaux, or Lucien, as he had insisted she must call him, took Latin to the extreme.
As he turned to order another bottle of champagne, she stole a proper look at him. Lucien was very tall and very tanned, with hair the colour of roast chestnuts. It was thick and wavy, glossy hair, which he wore a little long, and as the evening progressed Tara decided that with the rough black stubble on Lucien's face, combined with those dark flashing eyes, he looked like a dangerous pirate. A pirate dressed by Savile Row, of course.
'Are you all right?' Lucien enquired, sensing her interest.
Better than all right. But as the keen black stare remained fixed on her face she went all wobbly inside and quickly folded her hands primly in her lap. 'Yes, thank you,' she replied politely.
Her simple remark prompted the wickedest look, as if Lucien knew her innocent pose covered some very naughty undercurrents and she gasped as his hand covered hers, though it was barely there for a moment. When he took his hand away she gazed down, certain his print would be branded there. She remained quite still after that, hardly able to believe the Count of Ferranbeaux had actually touched her. Then Freya said something and the spell was broken as Lucien turned away to take part in Guy and Freya's far livelier conversation, leaving her to watch his sensual lips move as he spoke, and dream more dreams as she inhaled his fabulous cologne.
How was she to guess he would turn so quickly and catch her looking at him? It was a relief when he said nothing to embarrass her, but, as one of his ebony brows peaked, she guessed he knew exactly what she'd been thinking.