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Xandro eased the Bentley GT into the centre lane
as traffic crawled through one intersection after another in a general exodus of Sydney's inner city.
Streetlights vied with neon signs as the sun sank low on the horizon, streaking the western sky a brilliant red that subtly altered in hue as dusk descended and changed day into night.
It had been a tough day, with two high-powered meetings, a conference call, and numerous demands on his time.
He could do with a massage to ease the tension…except there wasn't time. In less than an hour he was due to attend a prestigious charity dinner.
He was acquainted with several women, any one of whom would drop everything to share the evening with him, willingly providing scintillating conversation laced with coquetry and an invitation to share a bed.
But he hadn't risen through the business ranks to head a financial empire by indulging in endless pleasure.
An enviable quality inherited from his father? If so, it had to be one of a very few. A wry smile tugged his mouth. Yannis Caramanis had been best-known as a hard-nosed son-of-a-bitch, ruthless to the point of mercilessness, and rich as Croesus. Husband to no less than four wives, the first of whom had borne him a child…Alexandro Cristoforo Caramanis.
A son destined to be an only child, for Yannis refused to consider an heir and a spare, thus creating rivalry, jealousy, dissent and the rupture of an empire he'd striven so hard to build.
Subsequent wives had coveted his father's wealth and what it could do to gild a life of endless pleasure and social status. Until the gilt wore off and they were discarded for the next beautifulyoung thing. Arm candy. Very serious arm candy whom Yannis ensured were each gifted no more than their due via water-tight pre-nuptial agreements.
Xandro rolled his shoulders, eased the Bentley forward through a set of traffic lights and took the New South Head road to suburban Vaucluse.
The soft, intrusive burr of his BlackBerry brought a muttered imprecation, and he extracted the unit, checked caller ID, let it go to message-bank and switched the unit to mute.
Success brought responsibilities…too many, he mused, for modern technology ensured he was constantly available, twenty-four by seven.
And while he relished the cut and thrust of high-powered business…excelled in it, he allowed wryly…there were other challenges in life he needed to explore.
One in particular.
One woman who was honest and without artifice, who'd occupy his bed, make his house a home, be a charming hostess, and provide him with children.
Someone who had little illusion about love, and was prepared to view marriage as a business proposition without the complication of emotion.
Affection, the exultation of the sexual act…but love? What was it?
He'd loved his mother with a child's love, only to have it taken away from him. As to his step-mothers…each of them had had only one goal in mind. Yannis' money, the gifts and the lifestyle.
A child was a nuisance and better served to be tucked away in an expensive-boarding school with term breaks spent at various exclusive holiday camps overseas.
He learnt very early to succeed in order to gain his father's attention. Consequently he excelled at everything.
And when Yannis had settled him into a lowly position within the Caramanis empire, he fought hard to prove his worth. So hard, there was no time for social frivolities.
The effort had earned himYannis'pride, a stake in his father's empire, multimillionaire status… and the attention of women.
Some more clever than most, and one in particular who had almost convinced him to put his ring on her finger.
Except a precautionary investigation had revealed details that ordinarily wouldn't have come to light.
A practice he continued to employ whenever he decided to become close to a woman. Calculated, perhaps…but it eliminated any nasty surprises.
Xandro managed a wry smile as he eased the Bentley into a street lined with exclusive real estate.
His home was a mansion situated high on a hill and bearing splendid views over the harbour. Purchased five years ago, he'd had it remodelled and refurbished, installed a live-in couple to manage the house and grounds…a luxury residence where he slept, worked and entertained.
The man who had everything.
A worthy successor to his father.
Hard, ruthless…coveted by women, but attached to none.
Isn't that how the tabloids depicted him?
A little over half an hour later, showered, shaved and attired in an evening suit, Xandro slid into the Bentley and headed towards the city.
Traffic had eased somewhat, making for a relatively smooth run to the inner-city hotel where tonight's fundraising event was being held.
Valet parking, deferential recognition as he bypassed the lift and took the sweeping staircase to the mezzanine floor where fellow guests mingled and sipped champagne.
Pre-dinner drinks provided an excellent opportunity for committee members to work the room, ensuring guests were informed of the next upcoming event on the social calendar.
Muted music filtered through strategically placed speakers, providing a non-intrusive background for easy conversation.
The evening held the promise of yet another successful fundraising event, from which in this instance disadvantaged children would benefit.
Xandro let his gaze idly skim the room, observing his fellow guests in an unobtrusive manner, greeted and acknowledged several within his immediate vicinity…came full circle, then returned to linger on one young woman's features.
Fine facial bone structure, a pretty mouth… He liked the way she held her head, the expressive movement of her hands. Ash-blonde hair swept high on her head in a style that made his fingers itch to release the pins holding its length in place.
Refined elegance from the top of her head to the tips of her delicate feet.
And slightly nervous, he detected idly, beneath the practised smile…and wondered why, when she was so well versed with the social scene.
Ilana…daughter of society maven Liliana and the late Henri Girard.
Attractive, slender and petite, in her late twenties, she possessed an aloof persona in the company of men…a quality that had earned her an ice maiden tag.With reason, or so rumour abounded…although the only known fact was her hastily cancelled nuptials to Grant Baxter on the eve of their wedding.
Two years on, she mixed and mingled with the city's social glitterati in the company of her widowed mother.
Many men had attempted to date her, but to Xandro's knowledge none had succeeded.
Impeccable background, charming manners and well versed in the social graces, Ilana Girard would, he'd decided, make an eminently suitable wife.
All that remained was to implement a starting point, begin the courtship…and put forward his proposal.
Xandro's eyes narrowed slightly as Liliana Girard separated from her daughter's side and began moving towards him.
'Xandro. How lovely to see you here.' 'Liliana.'He took her outstretched hands in his, then lowered his head and lightly brushed his lips to her cheek.
'If you're alone this evening, perhaps you would care to join Ilana and me?'
Xandro inclined his head in silent acquiescence. 'Thank you.'
He allowed Liliana to precede him, his gaze becoming deliberately enigmatic as he saw the moment Ilana sensed his approach. The imperceptible stillness in her stance, the slight lift of her head, like a fragile gazelle scenting danger.
Then the moment was gone, replaced by a practised smile as he drew close.
People-watching was an art-form, body language an acquired skill…both at which he was incredibly adept. 'Xandro,' Ilana managed with cool politeness, and silently damned the way her pulse kicked in to a faster beat.
There was something about him, an indefinable quality that raised the hairs at the back of her neck in silent warning…of what?
Tall, for even in four-inch stilettos she had to lift her head to look at him.
Attractive, Ilana accorded silently, in a leonine way, for the lighting accentuated his broad sculptured facial features, strong jaw-line and the enigmatic expression in his dark eyes.
His tailoring was impeccable and individually crafted, downplaying rather than emphasising his impressive breadth of shoulder.
Intensely masculine, he bore an aura of power that was uncontrived, yet only a fool would fail to detect the ruthlessness lurking beneath the surface.
He made no attempt to touch her…so why did she harbour the instinctive feeling he was merely biding his time? It didn't make sense.
'I believe you're sharing our table this evening.'
She was well versed in the art of social conversation and could converse in fluent Italian and French, thanks to a year spent in each country studying couture.
Yet in this man's presence she had to consciously strive to present a certain façade. Aware, in some deep recess of her mind, that he saw straight through it.
His gaze remained steady. 'Is that a problem?' What would he do if she said…yes?