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A condom? Kate stared into the organza pouch that the inebriated vestal virgin—aka the bride-to-be—had just dangled on her finger as if it were about to spontaneously combust.
She ignored the other recipients' smirks—all single girlfriends who appreciated the humour—but her free hand fisted with embarrassment against the filmy skirt of her belly-dancer's costume. Hen dos and their sexual innuendoes weren't her thing. How was straight-down-the-line all-work-and-no-play Kate Fielding going to cope with the rest of the evening with a condom burning a hole in her hand? Even if it was disguised as a lavender bag.
Thank goodness most of her face was veiled because she could feel a riot of crimson exploding into her cheeks. 'Ah…I um…'
'Go for it, Kate,' Sheri-Lee told her. 'You only live once.' While Kate stood speechless, Sheri snatched the tiny organza pouch from Kate's fingers and tucked it out of sight beneath the beaded waistband of her friend's skirt against her right hip. 'Casually single until you meet Mr Right.'
A chorus of girly giggles broke out as if the idea was absurd. Kate couldn't help feeling a little hurt. And self-conscious. Was she the only one here over twenty-one?
'Thanks… I think.' A strangled laugh escaped her and she looked longingly towards the door. She noticed some of the girls had spilled out of the private room in search of male company and were mingling with hotel patrons near the bar. Escape. Before anyone else could elaborate on the sad status of her life. 'Excuse me, I just need…'A breather. Her costume jingled as she ducked around an Amazon warrior queen and Cleopatra, thensqueezed past what looked like a female version of a sixties Russian spy.
She let out a sigh as cooler air enveloped her. Less raucous here. Dim lighting lent an intimate atmosphere to the quaint but tiny turn-of-the-century pub in Sydney's trendy suburb of Paddington, a few steps from Kate's office. Wandering to the wall plastered with its familiar framed pictures of the pub in its early years, she sipped the champagne she'd been holding for over an hour. But she wasn't seeing them, she was seeing her ex-fiancé.
Every hen night evoked the same sharp reminders. She should be married with kids by now. Her sister—her much younger sister, Rosa—was going to beat her to it. No thanks to Nick.
She shook her head. She was not going to think about Nick. Or how he'd betrayed her with another woman after she'd given him three years of her life. Three precious child-bearing years. And she was happy Rosa had found true love.
So what if Kate had turned thirty last month and—if her father's attitude was anything to go by—was rushing headlong into spinsterhood? Since Nick's defection Kate had never deviated from the narrow path she'd set herself and walked on the wild side. Her choice, she reminded herself, and a good thing. But the little bump of the organza bag against her hip stirred something hot and primal deep in her belly, calling up other times…
The aromas of Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine mingled on the air as suppertime approached. She wished it would hurry up so she could make her excuses and leave.
Sheri-Lee had met her Mr Right. She was getting married and leaving work and she was doing both next week. Still, Kate wondered… Why did marriage often mean the end of paid employment? Independence?
She almost felt sorry for Sheri-Lee. Love always seemed to involve sacrifice, women's sacrifice. Except that Sheri radiated happiness and couldn't wait to resign and set up house.
Four years ago Kate had nearly fallen into that trap herself. Forget that she'd have fallen willingly, safe in the knowledge that Nick loved her. In hindsight she knew it hadn't been love at all on his part.
So… casually single?
Dream on, Kate. She didn't have time for men. Nor had she ever entirely understood the attraction of casual sex, but, honestly, sometimes her ego needed a little stroking…
A tingle danced down her spine, hot and cold at the same time, like a hot fudge sundae, touching every vertebra in turn with the shivery sensation. Someone was watching her; she could feel it. And it felt like one hundred per cent pure masculine interest.
She resisted an involuntary shudder as she cast her eyes over her shoulder.
Then she saw him, and understanding dawned bright and hot. The six-foot-something dream in jungle-green army-surplus pants, black T-shirt and scuffed boots looking at her. Tanned and unshaven with dark hair. Topaz eyes.
The reason for the tingle.
And the reason her heart was knocking against her ribs. The suddenly damp palms. He was the reason for a whole lot of deliciously wicked things happening to her body right now. Oh, yeah, she could do casual and her ego wouldn't mind one bit if he was the one doing the stroking.
She turned slowly, her champagne flute all but forgotten in her hands as she eyed him back from behind the safety of her disguise. Did this guy work out or what? His T-shirt clung like a lover to his well-sculpted body, the sleeves stretched tight over hard muscle and olive skin. He looked as if he'd just stepped out of an adventure movie.
A glance lower suggested his legs were in as good a shape as the rest of him, but the baggy trousers kept the details a mystery. She looked up in time to see his gaze centred near her exposed navel. His frank appraisal as his eyes drifted to the gauzy folds of her skirt and the outline of her legs seared her skin with liquid heat, sending bubbles of lava-lust through her veins and leaving her gasping for air in the suddenly overheated room.
She'd never felt this reaction to a man's attention before. Weak. Wanton. Willing. She was totally out of her depth. Not only did he look dangerous, she had no doubt he was because any moment now she'd melt at the base of those size twenty-something work-scuffed boots.
And those boots were making their way towards her.
She straightened to her full five feet four inches. Obviously he wasn't into style, since he hadn't bothered to conform to anything remotely resembling the expected neat casual dress code. Still, she was prepared to overlook that one small infraction since he more than made up for it in other ways.
Go for it. Sheri's words chimed in her head. Casually single until you meet Mr Right.
By the time he'd reached her, she had her nerves under control. Almost. Until she found herself looking up—way up—into those eyes. At this distance she could see flecks of green in his gold irises and lines feathering from the corners that spoke of time in the outdoors or fatigue, or both. He smelled of sweat and heat and testosterone.
'Can I get you something?' he said, in a deep sexy rumble that matched the rest of him.
Something? Like excited? Her neglected libido sighed. He could get her anything he pleased. Anywhere, any time.
A drink,' he clarified, nodding at her half-empty glass when she didn't reply. 'Looks like you could do with a refill.'
Uh oh, he was chatting her up and this was real life, not a daydream. Her bravado dipped, her fingers tightened on the glass. 'Ah… I'm fine for the moment. Thank you.'
From the corner of her eye she saw a couple of the girls watching with interest. Waiting to see if she'd bolt, no doubt. So she forced herself to remain still.
His gaze dropped to her mouth—or where her mouth would be—and his brows lowered fractionally. She could see him pondering the etiquette of lifting her veil, and deflected his thoughts with a quick, 'You look as if you've just flown halfway around the world.'
Her accusatory tone triggered a full-wattage smile from him, which in turn triggered another hike in her pulse rate.
'In fact I'm just in from LA.' The sinews in his forearm twisted as he checked his watch. 'As of two hours ago.'
Okay, so that was the reason for the unkempt look. 'Work or pleasure?'
'Both.' He cocked his head. 'I assume you're with the fancy-dress party-goers?'
She shrugged and smiled back. 'A hen night.'
He leaned forward slightly so that his head was closer to hers. 'Not yours, I hope.'
'No.' Her heart pounded once, hard. Through the gauze she could smell a hint of residual aftershave now—something spicy and expensive—at odds with his rugged appearance.
'That's the best news I've heard all day,' he said, and one hard, callused hand wrapped around Kate's—the one clutching her champagne flute. Electricity arced between their fingers, sending sparks shooting up her arm. Her eyes jerked to his and locked into his magnetic gaze. She felt the power in his fingers as he raised the glass. Felt his warm breath on her hand as he held the crystal tantalisingly close to his mouth. A slight movement on her part and she'd feel the scrape of his dark stubble against her skin.
Somewhere over her shoulder she heard a squeak of suppressed mirth. Her friends thought this was amusing? Well, she'd show them. She'd make something of tonight, with the man about to share her drink. This might be her last chance. A chance to show everyone, including herself, that she wasn't over the hill yet.
And… if she hid Kate Fielding tonight, she could partake of some of that casual fun she'd been missing out on. Have her ego stroked. Ooh, yes. For a little while she could be whoever she wanted with him.
Damon Gillespie was suddenly very glad he'd arrived in Sydney three days early. He'd been about to have a drink at the bar, take a quick look at the premises he'd come to Sydney to see, then hit the sack before tackling the business side tomorrow, but he'd walked into a costume party.
And seen her.
She'd looked… Not lonely, but alone. Definitely alone. Like him. Maybe that was the reason she aroused more than simple lust in him. But what?
Shrugging off the oddly disquieting feeling, he pressed their joined fingers against the stem of the glass. Forgot about jet lag and sleep deprivation and concentrated on the purely physical. The sensation of her knuckles locked like grim death beneath his, the subtle Oriental scent wafting from her costume as his gaze roamed over her once more.
Business could wait.
With most of her face covered, he had only a misty temptation to go by. Glimpses of a straight nose and high cheekbones, generous lips.
Ample female flesh spilled out of her bra top, bells and beads twinkling beneath the lights even as she drew breath. Her skirt—twenty or so gauzy scarfs in saffron and gold— sat low on her hips, showcasing her tiny waist and a glorious expanse of flat belly and golden skin, not to mention the outline of a perfect pair of legs. What intrigued him most was the ruby stone where her navel should be. How the deuce did she keep it there? he wondered. Some pelvic muscular trick?
His body tightened and the familiar rush of adrenaline he experienced before a jump rushed through his veins. Back in Oz two hours and he'd found a living fantasy. It had been a long time. He'd been too busy expanding his latest project and chasing his hunger for extreme sports across the globe to indulge in female company.
He intended to rectify that. Tonight.
He lifted the glass—and her fingers—to his lips and searched her eyes for a response. Framed with heavy mascara and navy eyeliner, they looked huge, and an honest-to-goodness lust flickered in their midnight depths. Spanish eyes, he thought, and from the recesses of his memory flashed another pair of dark eyes. He willed it away, pressed his lips to the flute and swallowed.
He could taste her on the glass. Sweet with a hint of tart. But the champagne… He grimaced in distaste. 'Champagne should be chilled.' He pried her fingers from the glass, set it on a passing drinks waiter's tray and swapped it for a fresh one. 'Here you go.'
The tips of her fingers brushed his as he handed it to her. 'Thank you.'
He reached for her free hand. 'Come on, Little Egypt, let's find somewhere quieter.' He led her around the bar, past the crowd to a corner of the room near a large potted philoden-dron where the noise was less intrusive. He waited for her to pull her veil aside and take that first sip. But she lifted the glass inside the gauze and her face remained that tempting mystery.
He hissed out an almost silent breath of frustration through his teeth. 'What's your name?'
She sipped a moment, then said, 'Shakira.'
The way she said it, smoky and seductive, added fuel to a fire that wasn't going to be extinguished without some serious action.
'Okay, Shakira…' Taking a step closer, he slid his hand beneath her disguise and caught her chin between thumb and forefinger. Tilted her head so he could see what he could of her properly. He heard her little catch of breath and a smooth hand wrapped around his forearm.
Her dark eyes flashed, but he soothed her with a smile and shook his head. 'It's okay. We can play it your way.' So long as we can play. She relaxed her hold and let his thumb trace the plump fullness of her lower lip. Once, twice. He paused as a thought occurred to him. 'Unless the reason's a jealous boyfriend somewhere that you're cheating on?'
He felt her jaw stiffen beneath his fingers. As if she'd been burned before, he thought.
'I don't cheat.'
'Good.' He couldn't begin to say how much that pleased him. 'Neither do I.'
He manoeuvred her so that the foliage shielded them from the majority of party-goers, then leaned in to absorb more of that exotic perfume. Frangipani and summer. It wound through his senses like one of those chiffon scarves covering her legs.
How could such an alluring woman be unattached? Don't ask questions, just enjoy the ride. He nuzzled her neck, then, encouraged by her response, nipped the fragrant flesh beneath her ear. The little bells on her costume tinkled against the front of his trousers, her beaded bra abraded his chest, her feminine curves felt soft and sensual against his hardening body.
He slid a finger just above the band of her skirt from one pelvic bone to the other over firm, flat belly. Her flesh rippled and quivered beneath his touch, sending molten heat fizzing to his groin.
Her eyes flared with the same hot need that surged through him. He was so turned on, if he wasn't careful, he'd come right here in front of her, not to mention a roomful of people. He wanted that belly against his. Naked. He wanted her rippling and quivering around him as he pumped into her. And he wanted it now.
With difficulty he stepped back. He knew by her eyes and her elevated breathing that she too resented the loss of contact. That she was as eager—and willing—as he. He grabbed her hand. 'Let's get out of here.'