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Martin Diaz Cole was thoroughly bored; bored with the people gathered in a private room at a Palm Beach restaurant, bored with the woman standing by his side and bored with her incessant nonsensical chatter.
"Will you please be a darling and get me another glass of white wine, Martin," the petite brunette crooned, her tiny hand thrusting an empty wineglass at him.
Ignoring her request and the outstretched glass, Martin's attention was momentarily diverted. His dark eyes were fixed on a woman who appeared to float into the room.
His gaze took in everything about her in one quick penetrating glance. This woman, this stranger, and a stranger she was because he knew every one of the guests Jon Grant and Brittany Alexander had invited to their engagement party.
She was tall, at least five-eight, and incredibly slender. The off-the-shoulder white dress ended several inches below her long shapely legs, clinging to and outlining the curve of her full breasts, narrow waist and slim hips.
Staring at her, Martin experienced an emotion he hadn't felt in years: lust. No, he thought, it was more like a craving. He saw something he wanted, and there weren't too many things he wanted that he did not get.
"Martin," the brunette wailed, her lovely features distorted in distress as she noted the direction of his attention.
"Excuse me, Sonia," he apologized softly, making his way across the room, leaving a pouting Sonia to find another fawning male to do her bidding. He watched as Brittany hugged the woman before pulling back and showing her the diamond ring on her finger.
His own hands were thrust into the pockets of his black linen slacks as he waited patiently for Brittany to notice him. Brittany glanced his way and he smiled at her.
Brittany tossed back a head of naturally waving ash-blond hair, gesturing. "Martin, please come meet a friend of mine. Parris and I were roommates at college. Parris Simmons, Martin Cole. Martin's Jon's best man," she said to Parris, not pausing to take a breath.
Stepping closer to Parris, Martin stared down at her upturned face. Her golden-brown skin was deeply tanned from the Florida summer sun and radiated a natural glow of good health which did not come from makeup. Her chemically-straightened dark shiny hair was styled in a flattering shag-cut feathering around her face and neck. Naturally arching eyebrows and thick long black lashes framed a pair of eyes that were a clear brown with just a hint of dark green in their mysterious depths. Her nose was short and rounded at the tip and her mouth was full, temptingly curved, and Martin found Parris to be the most beautiful woman he'd ever met.
Extending a slender hand, Parris gave him a tight smile. "It's nice meeting you, Martin."
It took several seconds before he reacted to her polite greeting. The low husky timbre of her voice was not what he had expected from her. The dulcet throaty tones were like a fog, cloaking and enveloping in a sensual web of raw seduction.
He grasped her hand, holding it firmly before releasing her fingers. "The pleasure is all mine," he replied, finding his own voice.
"You'll get a chance to talk to Parris later, Martin," Brittany promised. "I want to introduce her to Jon."
Martin nodded, staring at Parris as she walked away with Brittany. He spent the next twenty minutes chatting with some of the other guests until he garnered Brittany's attention again.
"I want you to seat me next to Parris," he said quietly.
Brittany's pale gray eyes widened with his request. "No, Martin."
"Why not?" he countered.
"She's not like that."
"Not like what, Brittany?"
She exhaled audibly. How could she explain to her fiancé's best friend that Parris Simmons was not like the women Martin Cole usually dated.
"She's different," she explained, a need to protect her friend surfacing. "She's not like the women you men pass around whenever you tire of her."
Martin's face darkened under his deeply browned olive complexion. Running a hand through the thick curling black hair falling to his shoulders, he glanced down at the highly polished toes of his imported slip-ons and smiled.
"I don't want to sleep with her Brittany," he replied softly. "I just want you to make certain we're seated together when we sit down to eat."
Brittany stared at the man whose devastatingly dimpled smile was hypnotic. She was always astounded by Martin's masculine beauty. His African-American-Cuban ancestry had afford him exquisite dark-brown coloring, large dark eyes, sweeping black eyebrows, high cheekbones, a thin delicate nose and a full sensual mouth which made him almost too beautiful for a man. He had it all—looks and money.
"You're not lying to me, are you?" she asked him.
Twin dimples creased the lean tanned cheeks of the man with the curly black hair and winning smile. "No."
She didn't understand him. Martin usually had women fighting one another for his attention. At twenty-nine he was one of the most sought-after bachelors along Florida's Gold Coast. Women usually chased Martin Diaz Cole, not the other way around.
"Okay," she conceded. "But if you try…"
"You worry too much," Martin interrupted. "I'll take good care of her."
He spent the remainder of the cocktail hour totally entranced by Parris Simmons. He watched her as she smiled and flirted with many of the single men who appeared as equally entranced as he. He ignored all that was going on around him, studying the woman who had cast a spell over him without her being aware of it.
Everyone filed into an adjoining room at the restaurant as waiters announced that seating was prearranged and directed each guest to their assigned table.
Parris searched her table, locating her name on a place card and a large dark-brown hand pulled out a chair for her. She glanced up to find Martin Cole standing beside her.
"Miss Simmons," he said, his mellifluent voice soft and caressing, as he offered to seat her.
"Thank you," she replied shyly, permitting him to seat her. He sat down next to her and she sucked in a lungful of air. Being in Martin's presence was like his walking into a room and using up all of the oxygen from the other occupants. He left her gasping and feeling lightheaded.
She had read about Martin and occasionally heard his name mentioned by several of the interior designers she worked with, but he had been just that—a name. This tall man looming over her by more than half a foot was intoxicating.
She remembered an article branding him as "the brash, young Rupert Murdoch of the Caribbean." He had acquired large tracts of land throughout the Caribbean the way Rupert Murdoch acquired newspapers and television networks.
Martin's business acumen had netted his family holdings untold wealth and power while the Cole name had become synonymous with the importation of tropical produce, private villas and vacation resorts throughout Central America and the Caribbean.
Business Week, Money and Forbes magazines had all reported the meteoric rise of the Cole influence in the world of Latin American finance. The articles noted that Martin had inherited his business expertise from his Cuban-born maternal grandfather who once owned the largest cigar-producing plantation in pre-rev-olutionary Cuba, and his own father. Samuel Claridge Cole was the great-great-great-grandson of African-American slaves, who after the Civil War went into business cultivating the crop that their disenfranchised ancestors grew and picked: cotton. The cotton crop gave way to peanuts and finally to soybeans.
After taking a surreptitious glance at Parris's profile, Martin stared at her ringless fingers. "Are you also into art?" he asked, initiating conversation. She arched a questioning eyebrow. "Brittany said the two of you were college roommates," he reminded her. If she went to college with Brittany, then that meant they were about the same age—twenty-two or twenty-three, he calculated quickly.
"No, I'm an interior decorator." Both she and Brittany had attended the Savannah College of Art and Design. Brittany majored in art history while she studied design.
"And I know what you do," she said, watching a flush darken his face.
He arched his sweeping black eyebrows. "And just what is it I do, Parris?" There was a slight rolling of the double r's in her name when he said it.
Her hazel-colored gaze was fixed on his mouth. "You're…" She hesitated, hoping to come up with an appropriate description of his business activities. Calling him a corporate raider or shark was a compliment.
He leaned closer. "I'm a what?"
"An oppressor of human beings," she said instead.
He laughed softly. "I'm a businessman, Parris. Everything I do is legal and ethical."
"You own plantations. Your companies make slaves of people because they're only paid pennies a day."
His large eyes widened until she could see their black depths. "The companies my family owns pay adequate wages."
"It appears as if you've been misinformed, or perhaps you'd like to subsidize their pennies." A hint of a smile touched his mobile mouth. "I think we should talk about this later, and…"
"I won't be around later," she cut in. "I'm only here for the dinner."
Martin felt his pulse quicken. "You don't live here?"
Parris almost laughed at his startled expression and she gave him what she called her best "kool-aid grin." It was apparent Martin Cole was used to having women at his beck and call.
"No." What she didn't tell him was that she didn't live in Palm Beach, but in neighboring West Palm Beach.
She turned her attention to the man on her right, giving him a sensual smile while Martin's dark eyes gleamed like glassy volcanic rock.
He listened to the haunting sound of her low voice as she conversed with the other man. He saw Brittany smile at him from another table across the room.
Brittany was surprised when he didn't return her smile but she did register frustration on his handsome face. It was apparent his charm had been lost on Parris. There was no way she could reveal to him that the last thing Parris wanted was to become involved with a man—even if that man was the enviable Martin Diaz Cole.
Several courses were served before Martin solicited Parris's attention again. He pointed to the full glass of wine at her place setting. "You don't drink." His query sounded more like a statement than a question.
She turned and stared at him. "Not very much."
"You should at least try it. It happens to be an excellent vintage."
"I'll pass on the wine tonight."
Leaning closer, he pressed his shoulder to hers, the fragrance of her scented body lingering in his nostrils. "Are you always this charming?" he whispered.
He registered her slight intake of breath and the rapidly beating pulse in her throat. He had gotten a response from her.
Parris bit down on her lower lip, praying the heat in her face would subside quickly. When was she going to stop punishing other men for her ex-husband? she thought suddenly. Perhaps she had been too hard on Martin.
Resting her chin on her hand, she offered him a warm, open smile. "You should see me when I really turn it on," she teased.
She nodded, lowering her lashes. "Really."
"That should be something to see." He hit his forehead with the heel of his hand. "I forgot. I'll never get the opportunity to see it because you're only here for the dinner."
She sobered quickly. She knew she wouldn't see Martin again until Brittany's wedding. Brittany and Jon were to be married on September twenty-eighth, and that was four weeks away.
"I'll see you at the wedding," she reminded him.
He studied her face thoughtfully for a moment. "I suppose I'll have to wait until then, won't I?"
Parris saw an open invitation smoldering in the depths of his eyes, and decided to ignore it. "Yes, Martin," she whispered.
His jaw tightened noticeably. He had to find out what it was about her that drew him to her.
Brittany was right. Parris was not like the women he usually dated. They were older and appeared much more worldly than the woman sitting next to him. And more likely than not they were the sisters, cousins, nieces, and a few of them, daughters of business associates.
"Is this your first time meeting Jon?" Martin asked.
"Yes, even though I feel as if I've known him as long as Brittany has. Brittany and I keep in touch by phone."
"Where do you live?"
"West Palm Beach."
"I know," she cut in. "It's only a few miles away, but I don't have much time for visiting friends. My job takes me out of the state for at least twenty days each month."
And when she returned home it was to a furnished studio apartment. She sold her car because it sat in her landlady's garage for four months without her moving it. Now, whenever she needed to go somewhere she called a car service.
"What do you decorate?"
"Corporate offices. I select everything: desks, chairs, tables, lighting and accessories."
He registered the breathless quality of her voice and the excitement lighting up her eyes as she spoke. Like him, she enjoyed her career.
"Do you like the traveling?" he questioned.
"It depends on the place and the time of the year," she replied honestly. "Hawaii is always nice, as is Puerto Rico. Arizona and Nevada in the summer are always brutal, but staying in the best hotels with all of the amenities makes up for it."
Martin waited while a waiter removed their dishes before serving the next course. He was fascinated with Parris. She was different from the other women because she had talent to go along with her perfect face and body. It was the first time he discovered all three components in one woman.
"Take me, for instance," he said, resuming their conversation. "You seem to know about my line of business. How would you decorate an executive office for me?"
"It's not that easy." She gave him a warm smile. "Your executive style must harmonize with the image of your company while it lets you show your individuality. It must set you off but not dominate you, reflect you but not overpower you."
"How do you determine an office's personality?"
"I work from an executive's professional dossier."
"How do you feel about awards and personal photographs?"
"A profusion of family photographs may transmit too much intimacy; however a wall full of diplomas and awards signals insecurity to more people than it impresses."
Martin was impressed with Parris and her intelligence.
"How did you get your job?"
"I was recruited after I graduated. One of my professors worked for the architectural and design firm, so I suppose you can say that I had an in."
"Where do you see yourself in relation to the firm in another ten years?" It was a question he asked the many applicants who applied to ColeDiz for even fewer coveted positions in his family-owned company.
Parris reached for a water goblet and took a sip of water. She placed the goblet down beside the glass of wine. She knew where she wanted to be in ten years, and it was not in Florida.
"I'd like to live abroad. I want to decorate international offices, restored châteux, villas, and castles."
"I take it the company you work for has an overseas branch?"
She nodded the affirmative, giving him the name of the firm, and he whistled softly. Parris worked for the most prestigious architectural and design firm in the country.
"I think you'd better eat your filet mignon before the waiters serve the next course," she suggested in a low throaty tone.
She spent the next three-quarters of an hour exchanging pleasantries with both Martin and the man on her right. The silent, efficient waiters cleared the tables once again before coffee and dessert were offered. Cordials and liqueurs were passed around, and again she refused their offer.
She and the other guests sighed and murmured approval as Brittany opened boxes and cards. Most of the gifts were purchased from Nieman Marcus where Brittany was listed with their bridal registry.
Everyone's attention was directed to Martin after Brittany opened an envelope and read the printed card. He had offered to pay all of the expenses for Jon's and Brittany's honeymoon anywhere in the world.
Parris watched as Martin's expression never changed. He merely nodded his thanks, his dark eyes moving from Brittany's to Jon's smiling faces.
Glancing down at her watch, Parris noted the time. She had to leave. It was almost eight-thirty. The car service was scheduled to pick her up in ten minutes.
Placing her napkin on the table beside her plate, she whispered a "nice meeting you" to the dining partners flanking her and walked out of the room.
The restaurant's lobby overflowed with elegant men and women in formal dress. The precious stones hanging from scented pampered necks and wrists competed with the many shimmering lights on the massive overhead chandeliers.
Parris saw him before he saw her, but still she could not escape. Standing by the entrance to the restaurant was Owen Lawson, her ex-husband. There was no way she could get past him without him seeing her.
Then without warning, he turned away and she walked quickly through the door and out to the restaurant's parking lot.
Her heart pounded uncontrollably as she paced back and forth in the lot, smiling nervously at the young men who wore the short red bolero jackets of the valet parking staff.
Glancing down at her watch, Parris prayed silently for her driver to appear. She did not want a confrontation with Owen. Her trying to secure an annulment to their short-lived marriage had been too stressful and their last face-to-face confrontation too volatile to risk another encounter with him.
She felt the fingers snake around her upper arm before she heard the voice.
"Do you need a ride?"
"Don't scream, Parris," he warned. "And please don't make a scene."
She ignored the runaway pumping of her heart in her chest as she faced down Owen Lawson. "What the hell do you want?" she spat out.
"You still have a tongue that cuts like a whip." He managed a smile but it looked more like a sneer. "Roll it up, Parris."
"Let go of me."
"Not yet. Not until we talk."
She stared up at the man she thought she had loved beyond reason. The tall gaunt man with the most beautiful ebony-colored skin she had ever seen. The man whose intense dark eyes had