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Nicholas Zentenas found his quarry as soon as he stepped into the room. Although the wedding reception was in full swing, the ballroom crowded, he spotted her without difficulty. She was standing slightly apart from the mass of people between the bar area and the dance floor and there was something about her isolation amidst the crowds that drew him.
For a moment he was content to stand just inside the open French windows and observe her. The bright disco lights swirled around the darkness of the room, playing over her long blonde hair and highlighting her in a myriad of different colours that washed over her shapely figure in the long green dress.
She turned slightly and suddenly their eyes connected. He was momentarily taken aback by how beautiful she was. The snapshots taken by his private detective hadn't done her justice.
Their eyes held for what seemed like a long time but was probably only seconds. He felt a sudden fierce buzz of adrenalin. The fact that she was desirable was going to make his task all the more pleasurable.
Cat dropped her eyes from his as her friends returned to her side. She was used to men looking at her but there was something about this man's dark steady gaze that was different. It wasn't just the fact that he was simply gorgeous; it was the way he had looked at herlike a hunter weighing up his prey. She had felt suddenly vulnerable and breathless all at the same time. It was a sensation she had never experienced before and it had left her strangely shaken. Even now, surrounded by the friendly chatter of her colleagues, she could still feel the heavy sensation of her pulse-beat as if it were in tune with the bass of the music pumping around her.
She took a long drink of her water and tried to dismiss the feeling. Maybe she was just hot. London was sweltering in a heatwave and, even though it was nearing midnight and all the doors and windows of the room were open, the temperature had to be around thirty degrees.
Maybe she was also a little too wary of men at the moment, she acknowledged to herself wryly. Recently she had found herself carefully judging every man who spoke to her, wondering if they had been sent by her father or half brother. Crazy really, but the closer she got to her twenty-first birthday the worse these feelings of distrust and anxiety became. Her birthday was now a little under three months away and she couldn't wait for it to pass, she just wanted to get it over with and forget it.
She shouldn't feel like this, she thought sadly. A twenty-first should be something to look forward to, a time of happy family celebrations. If her mother had been alive she felt sure things would be different. But the problem was that the only family she had left was her father and half-brother Michael, and both of them had their minds solely on the money she could inherit if she fulfilled the terms of her grandfather's will and got married before the date of this birthday. She was just a pawn as far as they were concerned. They wanted to move her one step forward towards marriage and then checkmate, all the money would come pouring in. Well, she wasn't going to marry for money; she would go to hell before she went along with their plans and she had told them so quite implacably, not that they had paid her any attention.
Why couldn't her father's main concern have been for her happinesssurely it wasn't too much to ask?
The question stirred up the shadows of the past. She felt them inside her now felt the acute loneliness that had stalked her since childhood. It was amazing how that feeling was never far away, even in a room filled with people. It was the curse of the McKenzie money.
'Hey, Cat, do you fancy dancing?' Some friends caught hold of her on their way towards the dance floor.
Thankful for the interruption to her thoughts, she put her glass down and allowed herself to be drawn along with them out on to the packed floor.
For a while Cat forgot everything and became absorbed by the music. She was here with the rest of the workforce from the advertising company where she had worked for the last three months to celebrate their colleagues Claire and Martin's wedding. The couple had got married in the Caribbean last week and now they were partying in style at this top Knightsbridge hotel. Cat could see them on the centre of the floor, entwined in each other's arms, dancing slowly even though the beat was fast.
That was how love should be, she thought wistfully. Maybe one day she would meet someone who made her feel like that. Someone who loved her, someone she could trust. She had thought that she had met that person last year. Ryan Malone had been handsome and charming and little by little she had found herself falling under his spell, had started to think that this was the real thing. Then she had discovered that Ryan was in fact a business associate of her brother's and that all he was interested in was wedding her for her inheritance. That discovery still hurt. It had made her more wary than ever about trusting men.
As she turned something made her look distractedly back towards the doors, searching for the man who had been watching her earlier. She had the distinct feeling that his eyes were still on her. He wasn't there and she couldn't see him in the room. She was obviously imagining things. She tried to dismiss the feeling and concentrate on the music but she couldn't get the memory of that dark, broodingly intense gaze out of her mind.
Nicholas watched Cat from his vantage point. She was a good dancer, her movements were lissom and she had a natural rhythm that was very sexy. He had heard it said somewhere that if you were good at dancing you were good at sex. Maybe later he would test that theory; he was looking forward to feeling her move sensuously beneath him. Possessing that curvaceous body was going to be a real pleasure.
However he was deliberately not making a move on her too soon. Instead he was carefully monitoring the situation to see who approached her. He wanted to know if her father or brother had any spies in the camp. He knew they would want to protect their golden heiress. He wouldn't even have put it past them to line up a suitor for her. They had three months to secure the inheritance. He knew that Cat was just as hungry for money as the rest of her family and no doubt the three of them would be determinedly working towards getting their hands on the cash.
Well, Nicholas had different ideas. While he had breath left in his body he wasn't going to allow them to get their hands on that money. He knew it would only be used to wreak more destruction in people's lives.
The very name McKenzie made anger and distaste shoot through his blood like venom from a snake bite. Carter McKenzie was a snake, he thought acidly, a sly conniving, dishonest reptile. Eight years ago Nicholas had made the mistake of trusting the man with a land deal. Carter had lied to him and dishonestly duped him. As a consequence Nicholas had lost a lot of money trying to put things right, but what really infuriated him was the fact that he had almost lost something far more precious than money. Carter had tried to rob him of his reputation and had almost succeeded.
It had been a lesson hard learnt. Since then Nicholas had built his own empire and was wealthy beyond his wildest expectations, but he hadn't forgotten his old enemy. He had bided his time, watched and waited from afar. During that time he had noted that Carter McKenzie's son and daughter were exactly the same as their father. Michael McKenzie certainly hadn't broken the mould, he was no more than a con artist, and Catherine Well, she had financed them through one shady deal after another, was complicit in their greed.
According to his sources, there wasn't a lot of money left in the trust fund that she had been using up until now, and without the rest of the McKenzie inheritance she wouldn't be able to fund them for much longer.
Roll on that day, Nicholas thought now with determination. Because he intended to step in, sweep Catherine McKenzie off her feet and take what was theirs. Carter was going to rue the day he had ever crossed him. Revenge was going to be very sweet.
Cat left the dance floor and with quiet resolution he moved after her, surprised to see that she was heading for the main exit with speed. It was as if she was suddenly running away from something. He lengthened his stride and followed her.
A few minutes later Cat was standing outside in the heat of the night. The London street was strangely deserted; even the doorman who had been on duty at the hotel earlier was gone.
She felt better being away from the crowds. The panic that had gripped her on the dance floor seemed absurd now. Of course there had been no one watching her. Even so, all she wanted to do now was get back to the quiet safety of her flat.
There was a taxi rank across the road and she had thought she would just be able to jump into a cab straight away, but the rank was deserted. A gentle breeze rustled through the trees in the park opposite but apart from that there was an eerie silence. Cat delved into her handbag and took out her phone to call for a taxi. Then she turned to go back into the hotel to wait.
It was as she turned around that she bumped into a youth wearing jeans and a T-shirt. For a moment she thought it was her mistake and was almost about to apologise to him, tell him she hadn't seen him. But then he pushed her hard against the wrought iron railings and grabbed for her handbag and phone. Shock rushed through her as she realized she was being robbed.
Her phone was torn easily from her grasp, but instinctively she held on to the straps of her bag and for a moment a struggle ensued. She had a fleeting glimpse of his face; then the bag was wrenched away and he turned to run. He didn't get very far, a second later he had fallen heavily on the pavement. She heard the thud of his body and then the sound of her phone and the contents of her bag clattering across the concrete.
It was only when a dark shape detached itself from the shadows that she realized someone had tripped him up.
'I wouldn't push my luck if I were you.' A foot landed on the man's wrist as he attempted to pick up her purse. 'The police are on their way.'
The youth didn't need telling twice, he was up on his feet in a second and running away, his footsteps echoing down the empty street.
Are you all right?' Her rescuer bent to pick up her belongings. Cat noticed distractedly that he sounded calm and that there was a hint of a foreign accent in his deep tone. As he straightened and looked over at her she saw his face clearly in the street light. Dark intense eyes met hers. It was the man who had been watching her earlier.
She guessed that he would be about thirty-two. His hair was raven-dark, thick and straight. He was very handsome but not in a conventional sense, more in a dangerous, hard way. Everything about him, from the molten dark eyes to the sensual curve of his lips, spoke of power and control.
Aware that he was waiting for her to answer him, she hastily pulled herself together. 'Yes, I think so. Thank you for helping me.'
'You shouldn't have fought him for your bag. You could have been hurt,' he told her bluntly. 'Your life is more important than mere possessions.'
He was right. The realization of how much worse this could have been was just starting to sink in. As she reached to take the bag he held out to her, her hand trembled slightly.
'Come on, let's get you inside.' The hard edge in his tone softened slightly, but the arm he placed at her back was firm.
Cat didn't try to pull away; instead she allowed him to guide her back into the light and security of the hotel. There was a strength about him that was almost overwhelming and she was aware of his hand against her skin in a way that stirred up a fierce shiver of tension inside her. It was a feeling she couldn't quite comprehend. After all, she was safe now wasn't she?
'Mr Zentenas, is everything all right?' A receptionist looked over at them as they stepped into the foyer.
Cat noticed that she knew his name; she also noticed that as he spoke people jumped to attention. The manager of the hotel appeared, the police were phoned and then abruptly she was being swept away from everyone towards the lifts.
'You can wait for the police upstairs in my private suite.'
It wasn't an invitation; it was more of an order. The doors closed and suddenly they were alone in a very confined space.
She glanced across and met his gaze and once more her senses prickled with awareness. It was hard to identify the feelings he stirred inside her. He was generating something deeper than just the usual feeling of wariness she experienced around men.
She couldn't understand why a total stranger should have such a profound effect on her senses. Maybe it was just the fact that he was exceptionally handsome in a dark Mediterranean kind of way. Perhaps it was the way he looked at her as if he were trying to read the secrets of her soul.
He pressed the button for the top floor and there was silence between them as the lift started its ascent.
Nicholas watched as she leaned her head back against the mirrored interior. She looked pale and fragile and young. Her eyes were an almost impossible shade of jade-green as she looked up at him.
She wasn't what he had been expecting, and that threw him. He certainly hadn't imagined for one minute that he would have protective feelings for her. They had struck from nowhere when he had handed back her possessions, and he had been annoyed by the momentary weakness, had shrugged it off with determination. This was Carter McKenzie's daughter, he reminded himself fiercely, and she was well able for anything He knew for a fact that she was as conniving and sharp as her family.