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Such a beautiful young woman would always turn heads, Holt thought. Stares were guaranteed, and he was a man who automatically registered the physical details of anyone who crossed his path, whether business or social. He never forgot faces. He never forgot names. It was a God-given asset. Now his eyes were trained on the mystery woman as she entered the banquet room on the arm of Marcus Wainwright, the fifty-plus member of one of the richest and longest established families in the country. The combined impact brought the loud buzz of conversation in the huge room to an abrupt halt. "I don't believe it!"
His date for the evening, Paula Rowlands, of Rowlands shopping malls fame, sounded as if she was on the verge of freaking out. "For crying out loud, Holt, that proves it! The gossip is true" For added emphasis, she dug her long nails into the fine cloth of his dinner jacket. "Marcus has brought her to the social event of the year."
That was enormously significant. "At least she didn't sneak in," he said dryly, "though I'm sure the toughest bouncer wouldn't have asked for ID. He'd have ushered her through with a 'wow!'"
Paula swung to face him. "Holt, really!" she chided. "She works in a florist shop!"
"There goes the neighbourhood!" "God yes!" Paula moaned.
It was obvious Paula thought they were on the same page. It didn't occur to her he was being facetious. Paula was a snob. No doubt about it, but he liked her none the less. Snobbery was a minus, but Paula had a few pluses going for her. She was glamorous and generally good company both in and out of bed. The biggest plus for her among her wider circle of men friends was her billionaire father, George Rowlands. George was a genuine first-generation entrepreneur and a really decent guy. It was the Rowlands women, mother and daughter, Marilyn and Paula, neither of whom had worked a day in their lives apart from strenuous workouts in the gym, who suffered from delusions of grandeur.
"She owns the business, I believe," he tacked on. "Aunt Rowena told me only the other day when the rumours began to fly, she's a genius at handling flowers."
Paula stared at him with dumbstruck eyes. "Handling flowers, Holt? Darling, you can't be serious?"
He laughed. "Is that you in your Queen Victoria mode? Actually I am. I didn't say she pinched bucketloads from over neighbourhood fences and stacked them in the boot of her car. She apparently has a great talent for arranging flowers."
Paula continued to eye him incredulously. "How difficult is that?"
"Oh, believe me, it's an art form. It really is." Hadn't he pondered over what precisely had gone wrong with Marilyn Rowlands's many unsuccessful attempts at the Rowlands mansion?
"Joe the goose can arrange flowers," Paula said complacently, supremely unaware she had inherited her mother's "eye". "The trick is to buy lots, then shove them in fancy vases."
"Too easy!" He continued to track the progress of Marcus and the beauty on his arm. She might have walked out of a bravura late nineteenth century painting, he decided, his attention well and truly caught. Singer Sargent or Jacque Emile Blanche perhaps? A lover of beauty in all its forms, for a moment he damned nearly forgot where he was. Small wonder Marcus had become infatuated.
"Your great-aunt here tonight?" Paula asked, hoping the answer was no. Rowena Wainwright-Palmerston rather intimidated Paula, though she knew it wasn't deliberate. "She looks great for her age," she said in an unconsciously patronising voice.
"Rowena looks great for any age," Holt clipped off smartly, though his attention was fully employed studying the blonde vision.
"Holt, baby?" Paula elbowed him in the ribs, trying to draw his attention back to her.
He had to grimace. "What are you trying to do, maim me?"
"Never!" She began to rhythmically smooth his back with her hands.
"She's extremely beautiful." He felt a stab of alarm. He was very fond of Marcus. Protective as well. Whatever he had expected of Marcus's shock lady friend, it wasn't this, though his great-aunt had warned him.
"She's quite a remarkable young lady and, without question, well bred. Cool old-style beauty, if you know what I mean. Very Mittel Europa. Not a modern look at all. That would appeal to Marcus. There's a story there, mark my words!"
"I hope you noticed the hair?" A bridling Paula jolted him out of his thoughts again.
"You're not going to tell me you were born with copper hair?"
Paula's eyes flashed with resentment. "Just a few foils," she lied. "Hers can't be real! Where do you get that white blonde except from a bottle?"
"Scandinavia, maybe?" he suggested. "Her surname is Erickson, I believe. Sonya Erickson. Bit of a clue. Norwegian background perhaps? Norway the Land of the Midnight Sun, birthplace of Ibsen, Grieg, Edvard Munch, Sigrid Undset, and, as I recall, the infamous Quisling."
Paula frowned. She didn't know half those people. She'd seen Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Sydney Theatre Company and thought it a dead bore, even if Cate Blanchett was as always brilliant. So far as she was concerned the play had little or no relevance to modern life. And what sort of a solution was suicide? "I never thought Marcus could be such a fool," she said with surprising bitterness. "Neither did Mummy."
"Ah, Mummy!" The terrible Mummy who had a Chihuahua called Mitzi that greeted male visitors in full Rottweiler mode. Marilyn Rowlands, who had been brought up to believe if a girl wasn't married by twenty-four she was doomed to live and die alone. Marilyn was therefore desperate to marry off her twenty-eight-year-old daughter.
Even if Paula were the last woman left in the world, he feared he would remain a bachelor.
"You were at the dinner party Mummy arranged to get Marcus and Susan Hampstead together, remember?" Paula took condemnatory eyes off Ms Ericksen to shoot him a glance. "They'd both lost their partners."
His reply was terse to the point of curtness. "Susan Hampstead. Three marriages? Three divorces? Marcus lost his dearly loved wife." There was a world of difference between the late Lucy Wainwright and Susan Hampstead, a living, breathing, career courtesan, and he wasn't going to let Paula forget it.
"Yes, yes, I know." Paula resumed rubbing his back in a conciliatory and, it had to be said, irritatingly proprietary fashion. He couldn't embarrass her in public by shrugging her off. He had to stand there and take it. They weren't an Item. He had been up front about it all. No commitment, but try as he did he couldn't stop Paula and her mother thinking there was or there would very soon be.
His mood turned pensive. "Marcus has been a very sad man for a long time. It's good to see him out and about." Only the last thing the Wainwright clan would want for Marcus was to make a dreadful and inevitably painful mistake. The girl was too young. Too beautiful. Too everything. She mightn't have Susan Hampstead's cobralike attack, but in real terms she could prove far more dangerous.
"Marcus obviously footed the bill for her dress." Paula glanced down at her own stunning designer gown, which suddenly appeared to her less stunning. "I can imagine just how much that evening dress cost. No florist could possibly afford it. It's couture. Vintage Chanel, I'd say. The jewellery too. Surely I've seen the pendant before?"
Mummy certainly would have, he thought, but he didn't enlighten Paula. The pendant necklace, an exquisite Colombian emerald surrounded by a sunburst of diamonds, that hung around the girl's white swan neck had belonged to Lucy. So too had the chandelier-style diamond earrings. The set had been Marcus's wedding gift to his beautiful green-eyed wife. They hadn't been seen for the best part of six years, which was roughly the time lovely little Lucy had taken to die of bone cancer.
"Ah, well, mistresses never go out of date." His own surge of resentment towards the newcomer shocked him. Lucy's emeralds, God! Would Lucy mind? Would she turn over in her grave? No, Lucy had been a beautiful person. Shouldn't he at least give this young woman a chance? But his male intuition had gone into overdrive. She was one of those life altering women. Needless to say she would be very clever. Manipulative, as a matter of course. He noted she had matched her gown, not only to the jewel, but to her beautiful emerald eyes. They were set at a fascinating slant. Her eyes rivalled the precious gemstone. It dipped into the perfectly arched upper swells of her breasts. Her skin was flawless, lily white. One rarely saw such porcelain skin outside Europe. Her beautiful, thick, white-blonde hair, which he was prepared to bet a million dollars was natural with that white skin, was arranged in an elegant chignon interwoven with silver and gold threads that stood out like a glittering sunburst. It was incredibly effective. They could have had a young goddess on the scene.
Rowena as usual was spot on. A young woman who owned and worked in a florist shop looked like Old World aristocracy, so regal was her demeanour. She didn't appear in the least overawed by her lavish surroundings, the fashionable crowd, the seriously rich, the celebrities and socialites, or troubled by the full-on battery of stares. She moved with confidence showing no sign she was aware of the effect she was having on the room full of guests. Royalty couldn't have pulled it off better.
"And she's got inches on Marcus," Paula pointed out, as though it were absolutely verboten for a woman to be taller than her escort.
"Very likely her high heels." She was certainly above average height for a woman. As a couple, they were a study in contrasts. Marcus, medium height, worryingly thin, dark, grey-flecked hair, grey eyes, an austere scholarly face, and a knife sharp brain. He looked more like a university don than a captain of industry. His companion was ultra slender, but not in that borderline anorexic way Holt so disliked. She was willowy. She moved beautifully with the grace of a trained dancer. Lovely arms, neck and small high breasts. Her legs, hidden by the full-length silk gown, would no doubt be just as spectacular.
That as may be, she couldn't be the defunct European aristocrat she appeared. More likely a hard-nosed gold-digger lurking beneath the surface. A woman as beautiful as that could have any man she wanted. Obviously topping her list of requirements for potential suitors was considerable wealth. That would decimate the numbers. Though Marcus was by no means the richest member of the Wainwright familythat was the family patriarch, JuliusMarcus had at least a hundred and forty million dollars. A fortune that size assured any man up to ninety years of age blue-chip eligibility. A hundred and forty million dollars should just about cover any girl-on-the-make's lifetime expenses.
Paula got another steely grip on his arm.
"Hey, Paula, those sessions at the gym are really paying off."
"Sorry." She relaxed the pressure. "You're not usually so testy. But I guess you're upset for poor Marcus. She's obviously an adventuress."
"A lot of women have that streak."
Paula gave a nervous laugh. At least she was an heiress. That let her off the hook. "Look out," she warned, clearly perturbed. "They're coming our way."
He gave her a sardonic glance. "Why not? Marcus is my uncle, after all."
She recognised him from his photographs. David Holt Wainwright. They didn't do him justice. In the flesh he was the embodiment of vibrant masculinity. Oddly enough a lot of handsome men were lacking in that department. He had it in spades. A kind of devilish dazzle, she thought. Handsome was too tame a word. She took in the height, the splendid physique, that look of high intelligence he shared with his uncle, the infinite self confidence only the super-rich had, plus an intrinsic sexiness that from all accounts drew women in droves. His thick crow-black hair, worn a little longer than usual, was cut into deep crisp waves that clung to his well-shaped skull. His brilliant dark eyes, so dark a brown they appeared black, dominated his dynamic face. He photographed well. A flashing white smile that lit a dark face to radiance was a big asset for anyone in the public eye. But the glossy images were as nothing to the man.
And he had already arrived at the conclusion she was an adventuress looking for a rich husband. It was there in that brilliant assessing gaze. What greater legitimacy could there be for a working girl than to marry a millionaire?
"David's friend is Paula Rowlands," Marcus was murmuring quietly in her ear. "Her father owns a good many shopping malls. Don't let her rattle you."
"Does it matter what she thinks of me?" she asked calmly, grateful she had mastered the art of hiding her true feelings to a considerable degree. It had been a struggle concealing her vulnerabilities, but she had learned to her cost to be very wary of trusting people, let alone sharing her innermost thoughts. Marcus, a lovely man, was the outstanding exception.
"No, it doesn't." Marcus laughed.
"Well, then." She hugged his arm. Being here tonight had everything to do with her respect and affection for Marcus Wainwright. She knew in accepting his invitation she was making a big shift out of obscurity into the limelight. It didn't sit comfortably with her but Marcus had insisted her appearance would be remarked on and bring in a whole lot of new customers. For some time now she had started to number the rich among her regulars. Most had lovely manners, others were unbelievably pretentious. Marcus's aunt Rowena, Lady Palmerston, widow of the distinguished British diplomat of the late seventies early eighties, Sir Roland Palmerston, was among the former. She frequently called into the shop, saying delightedly she found Sonya's arrangements "inspiring".
"But she'll try, my dear," Marcus warned. "The Rowlands women are frightful snobs. Money is their aristocracy."
"Your nephew must see something in her? She's very attractive and she has a real flair for wearing clothes."
Marcus gave a dry laugh that turned into a cough. "My nephew wants and needs a great deal more than that in a woman. It's Paula and her mother who hang in there."
"Well, he is seriously eligible," she put forward with a smile.
"David got the best of all of us," he said with very real pride.
The cautionary voice always at work inside Sonya's head was issuing warnings. Not of the smug-faced Paula Rowlands, heiress, but David Holt Wainwright, Marcus's dearly loved nephew. He was the one who was going to cause her grief. She had learned to rely on her intuition. David Wainwright was a very important figure in Marcus's life. He was already querying the exact nature of her friendship with Marcus. And friendship was all it was. She had her suspicions Marcus wanted more of her. He could offer her a great deal, not the least of it blessed safety, but at this point she was allowing the friendship plenty of time to go where it would.