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By Cait London
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMikhail Stepanov was the one man Ellie Lathrop did not want to ask for anything.
At eight o'clock on a late February night, fog curled seductively around the Washington State coastal road; it was treacherous with curves and damp with the drizzling rain that had been falling all day. Ellie tightened her hands on the mini-station wagon's steering wheel and glanced at the sleeping child in the back seat, nestled amid her favorite blanket and toys.
The drive from Albuquerque was draining, requiring stops at rest areas for Tanya to play. A few hours at night were spent sleeping in the well-lit parking lots of restaurants because motels would have taken the last of Ellie's money. In the last six months, she had spent most of her reserves in traveling from place to place, always moving, keeping Tanya safe. Ellie drove skillfully, carefully, more so than if she had been traveling by herself-because nothing could happen to her legally adopted, precious child.
Her sister's biological child ... and now Hillary wanted Tanya back, to use as a pawn in her marriage game.
Ellie ran her hand through her hair and realized she was shaking, running on coffee, nerves and fear.
Just over four years ago, she had cruised down this same twisting road, determined to irritate stern man of steel Mikhail Stepanov. Ellie's father owned the chain of Mignon International Resorts, to which Mikhail's Amoteh Resort belonged; as the boss's daughter, she often stayed at the various resorts free of charge. She had driven a sleek custom-ordered red sports car then, and fresh from a luxurious European spa, she had been up to battling Mikhail-one of her most enjoyable diversions, pricking at his meticulous businessman exterior, trying to find the man beneath. Back then, she didn't care what he thought of her, and it was all a game.
One tilt of that arrogant head, one slash of those green eyes, and her instincts told her to cut the Ice Man down a notch. Maybe back then she'd had to make him pay for being so like her father, focused on business, untouchable in his emotions.
Her father's files were complete-Mikhail Stepanov had been divorced five years ago, refusing his wife's demand to leave plans for the Amoteh Resort. JoAnna had come to Mignon's main offices and had told Paul Lathrop everything-including that she'd deliberately aborted Mikhail's baby. And yet, Mikhail revealed nothing of the emotions that would disturb another man.
Ellie's taunting games had stopped when she had became a mother to her sister's biological child. Tanya, just four years old, had to be protected, and Mikhail was the only man who could help. At six-foot three inches, he towered over Ellie's five-foot-seven frame, and when he was nearby, her instincts as a woman prickled. She refused to be intimidated by those narrowed green eyes, that forbidding scowl of dark brown brows.
Her windshield wipers click-clacked as Ellie thought of Mikhail Stepanov, the man she must face. With a Russian immigrant father and a Texas beauty as his mother, Mikhail was devoted to his family and to the Amoteh Resort. As manager, he moved through the luxurious corridors like a lord cruising his fortress, frighteningly efficient, quiet, dark and dangerous. Always perfectly groomed and dressed in a suit, his dark brown hair neatly clipped, Mikhail was about as approachable as an iceberg. Maybe that was why she had loved taunting him so much-just to see if he was human ... to see what ran beneath that steely surface.
Mikhail had the unique ability to challenge her at a level that made her want to taunt him, to bring out the real man. Her senses told her that beneath Mikhail's perfectly groomed, civilized suit lurked a primitive, sensual male-one she wanted to taste and captivate before moving on....
A woman whose mother had deserted her as an infant and who had been raised by a cold, hurtful father, Ellie wasn't one to stay in relationships that could hurt.
Mikhail couldn't be hurt. Not once in eleven years since she'd first met him in her father's offices did he disprove her appraisal. He'd been married and divorced in that time and so had she, but whatever nettled her about Mikhail hadn't changed.
Ellie doubted that Mikhail had any personal weaknesses-the man was all steel and business, the same ilk as her father.
Her lips pressed tightly as she watched the windshield wipers smear wet trails across the glass. It was dangerous for her to attempt to pit Mikhail against Paul Lathrop-she could lose. Correction: Tanya could lose.
On the hill overlooking the small town of Amoteh, Ellie slowed the small station wagon and stopped briefly. Located on the Pacific edge of southwest Washington State, the town had taken its name from the Chinook word for strawberry, amoteh. The lights of the tourist town, now wrapped in rain and fog, glowed eerily in the distance.
Mikhail had fought Paul, persuading him to finance a Mignon resort in the slow-moving, quiet town. The battles weren't sweet, but Paul had known that Mikhail's determination would find finances to create the Amoteh Resort-Mikhail's beloved "baby."
Those battles convinced Ellie that Mikhail could protect Tanya from her grandfather and irresponsible mother.
Ellie shivered, despite the warmth of the mini-station wagon. Her nails, no longer long, buffed and glossed, were now short and practical as they tightly gripped the steering wheel. She despised her helplessness, the desperation that had made her contact Mikhail Stepanov.
As her resources dwindled, she'd been wrangling with Mikhail, trying to nudge him into welcoming her and Tanya at the resort; Lathrops always had free accommodations. Then, six months ago, she'd been desperate. She'd ordered him to reserve a suite for her, with one room prepared for a child. After the first telephone volley between them, he hadn't answered her telephone calls, e-mails or faxes. Because she had nowhere else to send Tanya's toys, she had sent them to the Amoteh Resort.
As her father's daughter, Ellie knew how to bully and maneuver. Begging would be new and humiliating. At thirty-six years old, she was forced to deal with a man just like her father, to make concessions, to be at the mercy of his decisions.... In Mikhail's tersely expressed opinion, she was a playgirl, a jet-setter without responsibilities, legendary for her whims and parties, and she had botched a major project for the Mignon chain.
She'd botched nothing, merely taken the blame for Hillary, and she wasn't that playgirl any longer; she was desperate to protect her child and nothing of her former wealth remained. Ellie tightened her hands on the steering wheel; she was done wrangling, threatening and contacting Mikhail. If she had to, she'd beg....
Rain slashed against the windshield, as cold and welcoming as Mikhail would be. Ellie brushed a tear from her cheek. She hated crying, and yet with her financial reserves and strength almost gone and danger threatening Tanya, she needed the only man who could help her keep her child ... if he would.
She weighed arriving at the Amoteh Resort and facing Mikhail; Tanya shouldn't be exposed to that first clash, because they always clashed, didn't they? Mikhail in that quiet, dark, intense way as a response to her glittering, slashing offensive. She'd circled him, looking for a weakness, and had found none.
But this time, Ellie would not let herself respond to the instincts that Mikhail always set off. She would not....
Ellie turned the car from the Amoteh and toward the Stepanov home. She had met Mikhail's parents, Fadey and Mary Jo Stepanov, earlier, at a social dinner at the opening of the Amoteh, and had liked them instantly.
With the instinct of a mother protecting her child, Ellie drove to the Stepanov home, a bold wooden structure overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Excerpted from Instinctive Male by Cait London Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.