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The dying rays of the sun glanced across the sandstone walls of Otterbourne House so that it appeared to glow like burnished gold. As Anna scrunched across the gravel drive she reached into her handbag for her compact, flipped open the lid and scrutinised her appearance in the mirror. Her career as a model and the 'face' of an international cosmetics company necessitated spending hours being made up, but in private she usually opted for a more natural look.
Tonight she'd gone for the full works. Her reflection revealed an exquisite mask of porcelain skin stretched taut over sharp cheekbones, the deep blue of her eyes emphasised by the careful application of a taupe-coloured shadow and her lips coated in chic, scarlet gloss.
On any other occasion, dinner with her closest friend Kezia Niarchou and her husband Nik at their home in the Hertfordshire countryside would have called for casual attire suitable for crawling around on the floor with her little godson Theo. But tonight was different and she looked the epitome of glamour in her black designer cocktail dress.
Goodbye, Annahello, Anneliese Christiansen, sophisticated supermodel, she thought derisively as she snapped the compact shut and took a deep breath. Ever since Kezia had dropped the bombshell that Nik's cousin Damon would be present at the dinner party, Anna's nerves had been on edge. Damon Kouvaris was something else and right now she wished he were somewhere else, preferably on the other side of the world.
'Fashionably late is one thing, but you're pushing it,' Kezia greeted good-naturedly when she opened the door and ushered Anna inside. 'Luckily it's a cold first course, but I've been detecting rumblings fromthe kitchen that Mrs Jessop's fretting about her boeuf en croûte.'
'I'm sorry, didn't you get my text? I had a flat tyre,'Anna murmured apologetically. 'Fortunately that young guy from the ground-floor flat fitted the spare for me.'
'I should hope so; you could hardly have jacked up the car in that dress. You look gorgeous but I'm curious to know who you're hoping to impress,' Kezia murmured softly, her eyes widening when Anna blushed. 'It couldn't be Damon by any chance, could it?'
'No, it could not,'Anna drawled, managing to affect just the right amount of lazy amusement in her voice. They had been as close as sisters since their first day at boarding-school and their friendship had weathered her parents'bitter divorce and Kezia's battle with leukaemia. The bond between them was unbreakable but some things were too personal to share, certainly her inexplicable fascination with Damon Kouvaris.
Nik's cousin's reputation as a ruthless businessman was almost as legendary as the rumours of his prowess in the bedroom. He was said to be a dynamic lover with an insatiable interest in sophisticated blondes and Anna had no intention of joining his list of conquests. Yet, to her extreme irritation, she had been unable to forget him these past two months.
The guests were assembled in the drawing room. She followed Kezia through the doorway and smiled warmly at the group of her most trusted friends.
'Anna, what can I get you to drink?' Nikos Niarchou strode across the room to greet her. Tall, dark and impossibly handsome, Nik had exchanged roles from jet-setting playboy to devoted husband and father without a backward glance. He dropped a light kiss on Anna's cheek but his gaze returned immediately to Kezia.
This was how marriage should be, Anna acknowledged hollowly, noting how Nik's dark eyes glowed with love for his wife. No man had ever looked at her with such tender adoration and she was aware of a faint pang of envy that she quickly suppressed. Kezia, more than anyone, deserved to be happy and Anna was genuinely delighted for her. It wasn't as if she had any great desire to sample the joys of matrimony anyway, she reminded herself. Her parents were both on their third attempts and she had no intention of following their rocky path down the aisle of nuptial bliss.
'I hear you had trouble with your car. You should have let us know earlierI would have sent my driver to collect you,' Nik admonished lightly. 'You're almost as stubborn as my wife,' he added with a grin. 'Come and say hello to the others.'
There was no sign of Nik's cousin but Anna felt as tense as an overstrung bow when she greeted the other couples. It was instantly apparent that she was the only person present who did not have a partner. It wasn't an unusual occur-renceshe had no one special in her life and at social engagements she usually relied on a select group of male models and actor friends to play the role of her escort.
Tonight, knowing she was among friends, she had come alone but now she wished she had brought one of her faithful band of chaperons. She could only pray that Damon was accompanied by one of his numerous lovers because the idea of sitting next to him throughout dinner caused a peculiar feeling in the pit of her stomach.
For a second she seriously considered asking for a large gin and tonic to settle her nerves. She was being ridiculous, she told herself sternly as she followed Nik to the bar and requested her usual choice of iced water. Since Kezia's marriage, Otterbourne had become a second home to her and she had been looking forward to spending a pleasant evening. No way would she allow Nik's spine-tinglingly sexy cousin to unsettle her.
Forcing herself to relax, she was drawn into conversation with the other guests and her tension eased. Perhaps Damon wasn't here after all? she brooded, dismayed by the sharp pang of disappointment the thought evoked. As the head of Kouvaris Construction, he took a personal interest in every element of his business and she knew he led a hectic lifestyle travelling between the company's various projects. Maybe he had been called away to deal with some crisis, as he had when she had first met him on Nik's private Aegean island, Zathos, two months earlier.
The conversation was light and entertaining and she gave a peal of laughter when one of her friends recounted an amusing anecdote, but a sudden prickling sensation on her skin set the fine hairs on the back of her neck on end. Some innate sixth sense warned her she was being watched and she turned her head sharply as a figure appeared in the doorway leading to the terrace.
Instantly she was overwhelmed by his exceptional height and the formidable width of shoulders. Silhouetted against the evening sunshine he appeared so muscular and powerful that for a moment she could almost believe he were a figure from Greek mythology. Angrily she gave herself a mental shake and sought to tear her eyes from him, but he trapped her gaze and she swallowed at the brooding sexuality reflected in his midnight dark depths.
'Ah, Damon, there you are,' Nik said with a smile. 'You met Anna on Zathos, at Theo's christening, if you remember.'
'I haven't forgotten,' came the dry response. 'It's good to see you, Anna.'
His voice was low-pitched and melodious, reminding Anna of the sound of a bow being drawn lovingly across the strings of a cello. His Greek accent was heavily pronounced. Her name had never before sounded so sensual and her reaction was instant. A quiver ran the length of her spine and she affected a brief, impersonal smile.
'Mr Kouvaris! How nice to meet you again.'She extended her hand in formal greeting and gasped when he entwined his fingers through hers to draw her close. Before she had time to react he lowered his head and brushed his lips first on one cheek and then the other, the touch of his mouth on her skin causing goose bumps to cover every inch of her body.
Her career as a model meant that she frequently travelled abroad and was accustomed to the continental greeting, but her instant and overwhelming awareness of Damon caused hectic colour to stain her cheeks. Abruptly she stepped back, her heart racing as warmth coursed through her veins. Her head was spinning as if she had drunk a whole bottle of champagne and she inhaled sharply, desperate to compose herself.
'I hope you are well, Mr Kouvaris?' She managed the polite enquiry through gritted teeth and felt a flash of irritation when his mouth curved into a slow smile that told her he was well aware of her reaction to him.
'Very well, thank you,' he assured her gravely. 'My name is Damonin case you've forgotten,'he added in a tone that spoke plainly of his confidence that she had not. 'I think we can dispense with formality, don't you, Anna? After all, we're practically family.'
Anna's brows lifted fractionally. 'I'm not sure how you've reached that conclusion,' she drawled, grateful that the years of practice at masking her emotions ensured she sounded cool and aloof, despite the erratic thud of her heart.
'I'm Nik's cousin and you are his wife's closest friend. According to Kezia, the two of you are practically sisters.' Damon had moved without her being aware of it and Anna discovered that she had been manoeuvred into a corner, slightly apart from the other guests. He was much too close for comfort. Her eyes were drawn to his face, noting the contrast between his dark olive skin and his brilliant white teeth revealed when he smiled at her.
He wasn't handsome in the conventional sense and certainly did not share the perfect features of the male models she worked with. With his strong, slightly hooked nose, heavy black brows and square jaw, Damon reminded her of a boxer who had gone several rounds with a forceful opponent. The formidable width of his shoulders and his powerful physique added to his air of raw, earthy masculinity but it was his mouth, full lipped and innately sensual, that captured Anna's attention.
His kiss would be no gentle seduction, she acknowledged faintly, moistening her suddenly dry lips with the tip of her tongue. Damon exuded a degree of sexual magnetism that warned her he would demand total submission. He would be an uninhibited, possessive lover and would use his mouth as an instrument of sensual torture that would be impossible to resist.
Where on earth had that thought come from? she wondered frantically, dragging her gaze from his face to focus on his crisp white shirt. She was tall but he dwarfed her and she felt intimidated by his sheer size, the latent strength of his broad, muscular chest.
'So,Anna'his voice caressed every syllable of her name 'you look stunning.You've been abroad.'His eyes skimmed over her, noting her soft golden tan. 'South Africa, I understand.'
'Yes, but how did you?' She broke off with an impatient shrug. Kezia must have told himit was hardly a state secret after allbut the knowledge that he must have asked about her was unsettling. No wonder Kezia had teased her about him when she'd first arrived. She just hoped her friend wasn't harbouring any hopes about matchmaking.
'I discovered your whereabouts from your agency,' he admitted without a hint of contrition, amusement glimmering in his dark eyes when she rounded on him indignantly.
'Why?' she demanded crossly, unable to disguise her confusion at his apparent interest. He hadn't bothered to hide his faint disdain of her chosen profession when Nik had first introduced them on Zathos. Indeed, she'd gained the distinct impression that he believed her to be a brainless bimbo, and the knowledge still stung. 'The agency wouldn't have given out information like that to just anyone,' she snapped.
'They gave it to me. But I am not “just anyone”,'he stated with breathtaking arrogance, 'I am Damon Kouvaris, and once I'd convinced them that I was a personal friend of yours they were most helpful.'
'But you're not. We barely know each other. We've only met once, and the fact that we danced together at our godson's christening does not make us bosom buddies.'
The moment she'd uttered the word bosom, Anna could have cut her tongue out. Her chest was heaving with the force of her emotions. She felt Damon's gaze slide over her and was mortified to feel her breasts swell and tighten beneath the sheer black silk of her dress.
'There you are, you see. Already you've mentioned the unbreakable link between us. Theo, our godson,' Damon elucidated when she stared at him in confusion. 'He's one very good reason why we should take the opportunity to get to know one another better. You could even say it is our duty, ne?'
He was laughing at her, damn him, she realised furiously. She'd been thrilled when Kezia had asked her to be godmother to her little adopted son. It was an honour she had vowed to undertake to the best of her ability and she had travelled to Zathos, eager to meet her fellow godparent.
Unfortunately Nik's disturbingly sexy cousin was nothing like the sort of guardian she had imagined Kezia would have chosen for her son. Damon was Nik's choice, her friend had explained. She didn't know him that well but Nik thought a lot of him and, as far as Kezia was concerned, that settled the matter. Anna had been forced to swallow her doubts but she couldn't imagine that Damon, with his rugged good looks and magnetic charm, had any interest whatsoever in children.
His interest in women, however, was not in doubt. He possessed a blatant, simmering sexuality that was an almost primitive force. One glance from his dark, flashing eyes was enough to render any woman weak at the knees. Anna knew this from experience; hers had practically given way when Nik had first introduced them and now she was aware of the same trembling in her limbs as she faced the full onslaught of Damon's potent charm.
'Sorry to interrupt, but if we don't go in to dinner Mrs Jessop is likely to spontaneously-combust.' Kezia's light tone was a welcome release from the tension that gripped Anna and she expelled her breath sharply.
Damon stood aside and smiled at their hostess. 'Then we must come at once,' he said in the deep, gravelly voice that sent a delicious shiver down Anna's spine. 'I note that you don't have a partner this evening, Anna,' he murmured silkily. 'I, too, am alone and it would give me great pleasure to escort you to dinner.'
It was a perfectly reasonable request,Anna acknowledged, giving him a tight smile and allowing him to draw her arm through his. But she didn't feel reasonable. Damon unsettled her so that she felt edgy and irritable and yet at the same time wildly alive, her senses heightened to an unbearable degree.
When they followed the other guests into the dining room she was conscious of the brush of his thigh against hers and her body clenched. What was happening to her? She was Anneliese Christiansen. Her nickname of Ice Princess by certain elements of the press was well-deserved. Nobody got under her guardeverand it was infuriating to find that this arrogant, presumptuous Greek had the ability to shake her equilibrium.
No more, she vowed when Damon drew out a chair for her to sit down, before taking his place next to her at the table. She caught the tang of his aftershave, a spicy, exotic concoction that set her senses racing and it took considerable will-power to unfold her napkin and smile at him with an air of self-assurance she did not feel.
He was too pushy, too confidentshe would take great delight in countering his outrageous flirting with the cool indifference that she had perfected to an art form, she decided firmly.
The first course was a delicious seafood salad. Plump, pink prawns nestled on a bed of crisp lettuce, dressed with a delicate sauce that stirred Anna's taste buds. She'd eaten nothing since her usual breakfast of yoghurt and fruit and had spent the day in a state of pent up tension at the thought of meeting Damon again. Now she forced herself to relax and speared a prawn with her fork.
'Did you enjoy your trip to South Africa? It boasts some spectacular scenery.'
The sensual resonance of his voice curled around her so that she found it suddenly hard to swallow. 'It was a working trip and there was no time for sightseeing,' she replied politely. As usual, the trip had been a whirl of airport lounges and hotel vestibules with a few days on the beach where she had been too busy modelling a range of swimwear to take more than a cursory interest in her surroundings.
'That's a pity. The wild flowers on the veldt are stunning at this time of the year. Do you often work to such a tight schedule?' Damon enquired lightly, his tone plainly implying that he did not consider standing around in a selection of designer frocks hard work. He'd made other, faintly disparaging, comments about her job the first time they'd met and his attitude fanned Anna's irritation.
'Surprising though it may seem, modelling can be a demanding profession and I take my work seriously. I was paid to do a job in South Africa, not enjoy a freebie holiday,' she informed him coolly.
'Your attitude is commendable,' Damon assured her gravely, although she detected the glimmering amusement in his dark eyes. Nothing infuriated her more than the belief that pretty women were, by definition, airheads. For a second she was tempted to tell him that she had recently completed a four-year home study course and been awarded a business degree, but then thought better of it. Why did it matter what Damon Kouvaris thought of her? she thought defensively. It wasn't as if she cared about his opinion of her.
She returned her attention to her starter and found that her appetite had deserted her. He, on the other hand, was eating with evident enjoyment. She was aware of every movement he made and when he reached for his drink she stared, trans-fixed, as his strong, tanned fingers curled around the stem of the glass.