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Donna Wilks recognized the deep, deceptively pleasant voice at her back and choked on a mouthful of champagne. The surrounding black-tie hype vanished from conscious thought. She forgot that tonight was the most important of her career and its success could help so many. As she slowly turned, only one thing registered. Soon she would come face-to-face with her past.
Tate Bridges, Australian broadcasting mogul[23af] the man who had shattered her heart.
Gathering herself, Donna met his eyes and lifted her chin. "I don't believe in coincidence. What are you doing here?" She paused to smile at a passing senator then snapped at Tate. "And what the hell do you want with me?"
His darkly handsome face creased in pretended offense. "After five long years? Perhaps a kiss hello is too much to expect[23af]"
She cut him off. "Sorry. I don't have time for this right now."
Tate's casual charm was not only entrancing, it could also be deadly. Whatever lay behind this convenient meeting, it ended now.
As she spun away, her stiletto snagged on the carpet. Gasping, she tipped sideways at the same instant strong arms shot out to catch and reinstate her, front and center. So close, Tate's sensual mouth grinned. His ocean-blue eyes did not.
"If I were you, Donna, I'd make time."
Senator Michaels, a slight and eager man, had circled back.
"Sorry to interrupt." The senator gave Tate a wary glance, pushed silver-framed spectacles up the bump on his nose and spoke to Donna. "Just want to say[23af]fabulous turnout. The ballroom looks spectacular. Tonight's benefit will not only raise Sydney's awareness of your cause, but hopefully plentyof support[23af]" he tapped his back pocket "[23af]precisely where it counts."
As the senator melted back into the animated crowd, Tate glanced indolently around the room. "The senator's right. An impressive turnout for a very worthy cause." He thanked a waiter, accepted his trademark martini and swirled the green olive back and forth. "You always were a crusader. Guess this kind of goal comes with the territory."
Recovered from her near spill, Donna smoothed back a strand of blond hair fallen loose from her chignon. "If you're interested in my efforts to supply more crisis accommodations for abused women, see my assistant." She indicated a bright-eyed brunette who sat with an attentive group by a white baby grand. "April will be more than happy to note your donation."
"Oh, plenty of time for that."
His mouth closed around the olive. Lidded eyes fused to hers, he slowly withdrew the toothpick and leisurely chewed.
A bevy of sparks chased up her legs. Shivering, she ran a damp palm down her black satin sheath and tore her gaze away. He transformed a simple gesture into a deliberate, sensual act so easily. Confident. Sexy.
Way too dangerous.
Only one thing terrified her more than falling for her ex-lover again, and that was defying him.
After his father had passed away, Tate had claimed the title chief executive officer of TCAU16—and it wasn't long before enemies both inside and outside the television network had learned that Tate Bridges was a man neither to refuse nor ignore. After almost a decade winning every big business battle he'd instigated, he'd become known as Australia's Corporate King, though she doubted the title itself impressed him. Tate thought in terms of tangibles, like building, and cementing power in every aspect of his life.
Once she'd been in awe of him. Tonight, for more reasons than one, she wished only to escape.
Skimming a glance over the dazzling evening gowns and crisp dinner suits adorning the ballroom, she stifled a worn-down sigh. "Okay. You have my attention. Can we please just cut to the chase?"
This fund-raiser evening had been organized by the same philanthropic organization that had donated to her project's establishment costs. Every valuable contact she'd ever made was here. She could not afford to waste one moment of networking time.
"I want you to help prevent an injustice."
The muscles in her midsection knotted.
His request was intended to convey a noble slant as well as a dash of flattery. She might not be able to will away the physical attraction crackling between them, but if he thought she was still that gullible twenty-three-year-old who had hung on his every word, he could guess again.
Her voice was low and laced with indignation. "You think you know me. Appeal to my sense of valor and I'll bow to your bidding."
He raised a brow and sipped his martini.
That same air of entitlement had drawn her to him all those years ago. Nothing attracted her more than a man who was self-possessed—unless it was a man who was self-possessed, built like a power athlete, and made love with a finesse that left her breathless.
The knot in her stomach pulled tighter and Donna dropped her eyes. It hurt to even look at him, let alone remember.
Over the hum of conversation and tinkle of piano keys, the rich timbre of his voice reached out. "My brother appeared in court yesterday."
Understanding dawned, bright and clear. She slowly shook her head. "I should have known your family was behind this. No, I take that back. Libby is a sweetheart. Blade was the one who made bad decisions, and you were always the one to dive in and pull him out."
His eyes narrowed to warning slits. The message was clear: Don't go there.
"Blade's facing assault charges."
The news hit her with the force of a physical blow, but she hid her reaction by setting her glass on a passing waiter's tray. "And what would you like me to do about that?" She shrugged. "Bribe a judge?"
A lock of coal-black hair fell over his brow when he cocked his head, interested to hear more.
Soft fingers of panic closed around her throat. "That was a joke, Tate."
"From the crowd I've seen here tonight, you make some impressive connections. I'm not above a bribe for something this important."
Exasperated, she set off, weaving through the crowd, headed for French doors that opened onto a city-view balcony. She needed air, but more she needed to end this conversation. The sexual sparks were perilous enough; she didn't want government, legal or corporate VIPs overhearing a conversation concerning kickbacks.
Opening the balcony door, she silently cursed. Why tonight, of all nights?
But she knew why. He'd specifically chosen this time and place to put her off balance[23af]to make it easier for him to take control.
Outside, muggy summer heat hit her like a wall, but she persevered and crossed the sandstone tiles to reach a stone pillar entwined with bloodred bougainvillea. Knowing her nemesis would be directly behind, she crossed her arms and turned on her heel.
"I honestly believe you'd stoop to any level to shield your family, no matter what they were guilty of," she told him.
Coming to a stop, Tate braced his long legs shoulder width apart. Sliding one hand into a trouser pocket, he said in all sincerity, "I'm not ashamed to admit it."
Donna told herself not to stare at that broad chest, which looked more than magnificent in a starched dress shirt visible beneath the jacket, or breathe too deeply his masculine sandalwood scent that somehow seemed stronger now they were alone. Instead she thought of how Tate's parents had died nine years ago, leaving him responsible for a rebellious teen and a desperately sad little girl.
She understood his need to protect his siblings, and admired his dedication on a purely emotional level. But she didn't need her psychology degree to see that Tate refused to acknowledge the truth: by constantly bailing Blade out, he was not only condoning bad behavior, in a sense, he was promoting it.
Sometimes tough love was the best love.
Donna rested her shoulder against the cool hard pillar. "The jury came in long ago. You and I aren't on the same page as far as Blade is concerned. But I won't argue now." She needed to get back to her guests.
Not that Tate would care about the project she'd put her heart and soul into these past years. As far as he was concerned, Tate Bridges's priorities were everyone's priorities. Dedication and pride were the very qualities that made him great, as well as so damn arrogant.
Tate placed his glass on a nearby ledge. "As soon as we settle a point, I'll let you get back to appeasing your conscience."
Her blood turned to ice. Brows knitted, she searched his eyes. "Just what is that supposed to mean?"
A flicker of emotion[23af]cynicism perhaps, surely not concern[23af]passed across his eyes. "Let's stay on track.We were discussing my brother's predicament."
He set one palm high on the pillar and, leaning, penned her in. As his gaze traveled to her lips, her breasts tingled beneath her soft cowl neckline and a flood of warmth washed up her neck. He leaned closer and the heat swept south. When she shifted to press her bare back farther away and against the stone, the gleam in his eyes told her he'd noticed and approved. "I'll ask a question," he said, his breath warm against her lips, "you'll say yes and we'll both be on our way."
As unease warred with mutinous desire, movement beyond Tate's shoulder caught her eye. April, her assistant, appeared at the balcony doors and looked around. Donna slumped with relief. Rescued for the moment.
Aware of company, Tate reluctantly straightened and eased aside.
Spotting Donna, April waved and approached. She sent a quick curious nod Tate's way before addressing her boss. "Mrs. deWalters is searching for you. You probably shouldn't keep her waiting. I heard her say she has a late dinner appointment and needs to leave soon."
Donna's knees turned to rubber. Oh, Lord. Mrs. deWalters was the one person she promised herself she'd speak with tonight.
She tried her best to smile. "I'll be right in." As April left, Tate crossed his arms and growled. "Maeve deWalters. I'd have given you more credit than to get tangled up with that old battle-axe."
A history of antagonism and resentment ran wide and deep between the Bridgeses and deWalterses families. Donna knew little about the feud, other than how it had affected Blade and the woman he'd once loved, Kristen deWalters. But that had nothing to do with her.
"Mrs. deWalters has indicated she may be interested in providing significant financial support toward maintenance costs." The Sydney doyen of society might be pretentious and haughty, but Donna wouldn't let that interfere with getting her housing project up and running. "I do not intend to let this opportunity slide."
Tate lowered his arms. "That's your business. Mine is helping Blade. The judge requested a psychological assessment. First thing Monday our barrister will send correspondence requesting your services."
The air left her lungs as the trapdoor swung open. Lord in heaven, she should have seen something like this coming.
She focused on his implacable expression. "Let me get this straight. You want to bribe me into giving your brother a positive assessment in exchange for a donation tonight?"
He hitched up one shoulder then let it drop. "Works for me.