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BLISS! Life could never get better than this.
Saskia Prentice allowed him to ease her naked body down amongst the soft pillows, her young heart swelling, her lips still humming and swollen from his latest kiss, every cell in her body tingling, plumped and primed in anticipation.
Moonlight stroked against the window, rippling through the silk curtains, turning his skin to satin and illuminating the room in a warm, lunar glow, as if even the heavens approved. And offering just enough light to look up into the dark depths of his eyes as he positioned himself over her. She melted, her body softening even more, as she looked into them.
The eyes of the man she loved.
A moment of crystal-clear clarity pierced the pleasure fog surrounding her as his legs nestled into a welcome place between her own. Not quite eighteen, and already she'd found her soul mate, the one special man on this earth truly destined for her. There was no mistake. He was the one. And they would have years of loving together, years of feeling just like this.
How lucky could one woman get?
Then she stopped thinking and gave herself totally to the feeling of him pressing against her, wanting to feel him make her his own, wanting to welcome him inside her, compelling him to press harder to unite them and to end this desperate, urgent need...
Their eyes connected briefly as her body began to accept his, as their burning bodies began to meld.
"I love you," she whispered, putting in words what her heart already knew, her eyelids fluttering closed as she arched against him, urging him to break through that final stingingbarrier, urging him to completion.
A second later the bed bucked and all pressure was gone. He was gone.
And cold air swept cruelly over the places he'd been.
She opened her eyes, blinking in shock, searching for him. But already he was across the room and dragging on his jeans, throwing on a shirt. And his face was as bleak as the stormiest night, his eyes filled with the darkest savagery. "Put something on. I'll order you a taxi." His voice was coarse and gravelly, and nothing like she'd ever heard before. She looked up at him in horror, feeling suddenly exposed and vulnerable and inadequate all at the same time.
"Alex? What's wrong?" "Tsou," he spat roughly, tossing his head back as if he was disgusted with himself. His eyes glinted in the moonlight, hard and cold as granite, as he threw her clothes at her on the bed. "This was a mistake."
She curled herself behind them as best she could, shame and humiliation flaming her exposed flesh. Was her innocence so much of a turn-off?
"Did I do something wrong? I'm sorry--" 'Get dressed!" he ordered, his words uncompromising, his voice unrecognisable. The voice of a stranger.
"But..." Tears pricked at her eyes as she forced back the lump in her throat and fought her way into her clothes. "But why?"
In the half-light his face was all dark shadows and tight ridges, his muscled body moving with a tenseness tainted with something that simmered like hatred.
"Just get out!" he roared. "I don't do virgins!"
London--Eight years later
SUCCESS! Saskia Prentice breathed in that sweet smell as she approached the boardroom doors, the high of achievement fizzing in her veins.
In less than five minutes it would be official--she'd become editor-in-chief of the business magazine AlphaBiz.
And she'd worked so hard for this! Twelve months of intense and sometimes bitterly fought competition with fellow journalist Carmen Rivers was proof of that. Carmen had made no secret of the fact that she'd do anything to ensure she got the job--and, given her rival's reputation, she probably had. But still it had been Saskia who'd consistently filed the best stories from around the globe, producing the most difficult-to-extract business profiles. Just two days ago the chairman had intimated that she'd won, that the job would be hers come today's board meeting.
She'd been waiting on tenterhooks all day, until at last the summons had come. Finally the job would be hers. And finally she'd have the means to rescue her father from his grungy retirement bedsit and get him a place in a decent care facility in the country. She had it all planned--a small cottage for herself close by with a back garden for him to potter around in on the weekends. The generous sign-on bonus, together with the substantially larger pay packet that went with the job, would make all that possible and more.
One hand on the door latch, the other checking her crazy curls were well slicked down and locked into the tight bun at the nape of her neck, she took one last glorious breath, stringing out the extra buzz of adrenaline at the imminent realisation of her dreams. This was her big chance to make the Prentice name really worth something in business circles once again. And this was her opportunity to give her father back something of the pride that had been so ruthlessly stolen from him.
She let go her breath, tapped lightly on the rich timber doors and let herself in.
Muted sunlight streamed in through the large window, momentarily blinding her. She blinked, surprised, as her eyes adjusted to see not the entire board, as she'd been expecting, but just the chairman, sitting near the head of the table, the sunlight framing his silhouette, transforming him to just a blur of dark against the bright light, his expression indiscernible. In spite of the temperature-controlled air, she shivered.
"Ah, Miss Prentice...Saskia," his voice a low rumble, as he gestured her to sit opposite. "Thank you so much for coming."
She responded automatically as she blinked into the light, a disturbing feeling of unease creeping along her spine.
Something was wrong.
Sir Rodney Krieg was a bear of a man, with a booming voice, and yet today he sounded almost gentle. Sir Rodney never sounded gentle. And where was the board? Why weren't they all present for the announcement?
The chairman huffed out a long sigh that almost sounded defeated. "You know that when we organised this meeting we were expecting to be able to formalise our plans to appoint you as the new editor-in-chief?"
She nodded, a sudden tightness in her throat rendering her speechless, feeling his words tugging at the threads of her earlier euphoria.
"Well, I'm afraid there's been a slight change of plans."
"I don't understand." She squeezed the words out, battling the crushing chill of disappointment suddenly clamping around her heart, yet still refusing to give up on her dreams just yet. Maybe it was just a delay?
Unless they'd given the job to Carmen after all...
"Has the board decided to go with Carmen instead?"
He shook his head, and for one tiny moment she felt relief.
"Or at least," Sir Rodney continued, "not yet." And her hopes died anew.
But she wasn't about to go down without a fight. She wouldn't give up on everything she'd worked for that easily. Dry-mouthed, she forced herself to respond, anger building inside. "What do you mean, "not yet"? What happened? Only two days ago you said--"
He held up one hand to silence her. "It's irregular, I admit, but Carmen has been having a word in the ear of some of the board members, doing some lobbying on her own behalf..."
Saskia froze. So Carmen had got wind of the board's decision and decided to head it off at the pass? It might be an uncharitable thought, but if Carmen was desperate enough for this position, she didn't want to think about the type of word she'd been having in the board members' ears.
"...and to cut a long story short," Sir Rodney continued, "the board has decided that a decision as to who is going to head the editorial team shouldn't be rushed."
"It was hardly rushed," she protested. "The board has been deliberating on this for the last twelve months."
"Nevertheless, the board feels that perhaps Carmen has a point. You've been engaged on different projects during that time. Maybe she hasn't had the opportunity to show her full potential after all."
Saskia might almost have sneered if she hadn't been more concerned at the mental image of her small cottage in the country misting, the fabric of her dreams unravelling faster than she could tie off the ends. What would she tell her father? With only one, maybe two years of time before his increasing frailty rendered him bedridden, he'd been so looking forward to the move out of the city. She couldn't afford any delays to her plans, let alone risk losing this chance altogether.
"So what happens now?" she asked, her spirits at an all-time low. She'd worked so hard for this opportunity and it had just about been in her grasp. To have it pulled from her reach now, when it had been so close, was more than unfair. "How long will the board take to make a final decision?"
TRISH MOREY 15 'Ah. That all depends on you--and Carmen, of course."