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A GARDEN party. Not his usual scene.
Slade Carruthers had stationed himself in one corner of the garden, a palm tree waving high over his head, his back flanked by California holly. The sun was, of course, shining. Would it dare do anything else for Mrs. Henry Hayward III's annual garden party?
He was here on his own. As he preferred to be.
He was in between women right now; had been for quite a while. Maybe he'd grown bored with the age-old game of the chase, and the inevitable surrender that led, equally inevitably, to the end of yet another affair. Certainly for quite a while he hadn't met anyone who'd tempted him to abandon his solitary status.
Casually Slade looked around. Belle Hayward's guests were, as usual, an eccentric mixture of extremely rich, well-bred socialites and artistic mavericks. But every one of them knew the rules: suits and ties for the gentlemen, dresses and hats for the ladies. The two large men stationed at the iron gates had been rumored to turn away a famous painter in acrylic-spattered jeans, and an heiress in diamond-sprinkled capri pants.
The Ascot of San Francisco, Slade thought, amused. His own summerweight suit was hand-tailored, his shoes Italian leather, his shirt and tie silk. He'd even combed his unruly dark hair into some sort of order.
A young woman strolled into his field of view. Her head was bent as she listened to an elderly lady who looked familiar to Slade, and who was wearing a mauve gown that looked all too recently resurrected from mothballs. He searched for her name, realizing he'd met her here last year. Maggie Yarrow, that was it. Last of a line of ruthless steel magnates, possessor of a tongue like a blunt ax.
The young woman had broken both Belle's rules. She was hatless and she was dressed in a flowing tunic over wide-legged pants.
Her wild tangle of red curls shone like flame in the sunlight. Slade left his post under the palm tree and started walking toward her, smiling at acquaintances as he went, refusing a goblet of champagne from one of the white-jacketed waiters. His heart was beating rather faster than he liked.
As he got closer, he saw she had wide-spaced eyes of a true turquoise under elegantly arched brows; a soft, voluptuously curved mouth; a decided chin that added character to a face already imbued with passionate intelligence.
And with kindness, Slade thought. Not everyone would have chosen to pass the afternoon with a rude and dotty ninety-year-old. His nose twitched. Who did indeed smell of mothballs.
Then the young woman threw back her head and laughed, a delightful cascade of sound that pierced Slade to the core. Her hair rippled over her shoulders, gleaming as a bolt of silk gleams in the light.
He stopped dead in his tracks. His palms were damp, his heart was racketing in his chest and his groin had hardened. How could he be so strongly attracted to someone whose name he didn't even know?
It looked as though his long months of abstinence were over. If he didn't meet her, he'd die.
Where the hell had that thought come from? Cool it, he told himself. We're talking lust here. Plain old-fashioned lust.
As though she sensed the intensity of his gaze, the young woman looked straight at him. Her smile faded, replaced by a look of puzzlement. "Is something wrong?" she said. "Am I supposed to know you?"
Her voice was honey-smooth, layered like fine brandy; she had the trace of an accent. Slade said, "I don't believe we've met, no. Slade Carruthers. Hello, Mrs. Yarrow, you're looking well."
The elderly lady gave an uncouth cackle. "Watch out for this one, girl. Richer than you by a city mile. Money and machismo — he's one of Belle's favorites."
"Why don't you introduce me anyway?" Slade said.
"Introduce yourselves." Maggie Yarrow hitched at the shoulder of her gown. "Look at the pair of you — an ad for Beautiful People. California Chic. I need more champagne."
Slade ducked as she swished her ebony cane through the air to get the attention of the nearest waiter. After grabbing a glass from his tray, she tossed back its contents, took another from him and walked in a dead-straight line toward her hostess.
Trying not to laugh, Slade sought out those incredible turquoise eyes again. "I'm not from California. Are you?"
"No." She held out one hand. "Clea Chardin."
Her fingers were slender, yet her handclasp was imbued with confidence; Slade always paid attention to handshakes. It also, he thought shakily, carried a jolt like electricity. He opened his mouth to say something urbane, witty, erudite. Instead he heard himself say, "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever met."
Clea tugged her hand free, to her dismay feeling desire uncoil in her belly; every nerve she possessed was suddenly on high alert. Danger, she thought. This man wasn't her usual fare. Far from it. Taking a deep breath, she said lightly, "I read an article recently that said beauty is based on symmetry. So you're complimenting me because my nose isn't crooked and I'm not wall-eyed."
Pull out all the stops, Slade thought. Because this is a woman you've got to have. "I'm saying your eyes are like the sea in summer when it washes over a shoal. That your hair glows like the coals of a bonfire on the beach."
Disconcerted, Clea blinked. "Well," she said, "poetry. You surprise me, Mr. Carruthers."
"Call me Slade and I can't imagine I'm the first man to tell you how astonishingly beautiful you are." He smiled.
"Actually, your nose is slightly crooked. Adds character."
"You mean I'm imperfect?" she said. "Now your face is much too strong to be called handsome. Compelling, yes. Rugged, certainly." She smiled back, a smile full of mockery.
"Your hair is the color of polished mahogany, and your eyes are like the Mediterranean late on a summer evening — that wonderful midnight-blue."
"You're embarrassing me."
"I can't imagine I'm the first woman to tell you how astonishingly attractive you are," she riposted.
"You know what? Your skin's like the pearly sheen inside a seashell." And how he longed to stroke the hollow beneath her cheekbone, its smooth ivory warmth. Fighting to keep his hands at his sides, Slade added, "A mutual admiration society — is that what we are?"
"From the neck up only," Clea said, deciding the time had come for a solid dose of the truth. "I'm not going near your body."
He dropped his iron control long enough for his gaze to rake her from head to toe, from her softly shadowed cleavage to the seductive flow of waist, hip and thigh. On her bare feet she was wearing jeweled sandals with impossibly high heels. My God, he thought, I'm done for. "That's very wise of you," he said thickly, and looked around the crowded garden. "Given the circumstances."
"I meant," she said clearly, "that I'm literally not going near your body."
His choke of laughter was involuntary. "You're honest, I'll say that for you."
She gave him an enigmatic smile; at least, she hoped it was enigmatic. "Where's home for you, Slade?"
Tacitly accepting her change of subject, he answered, "Manhattan. And you?"
"So your accent's Italian?" he said.
"Not really. I grew up in France and Spain."
"What brings you here?"
"I was invited."
An answer that wasn't an answer. He glanced down at her aqua silk trousers. "How did you get past the dragons at the gate? Belle's dress code is set in concrete."
She said demurely, "I arrived earlier in the day and changed in the house."
"So you know Belle well?"
"I'd never met her before yesterday nor had I met Maggie Yarrow. Just how rich are you, Slade Carruthers?"
"I could ask the same of you."
"Carruthers " Her eyes widened. "Not Carruthers Consolidated?"
"You're doing all that cutting-edge research on environmentally sustainable power sources," she said with genuine excitement, temporarily forgetting that Slade represented nothing but danger. She asked a penetrating question, Slade answered and for ten minutes they talked animatedly about wind power and solar systems.
Although she was both informed and interested, it was he who brought the conversation back to the personal. "How long are you staying in the area? I could show you the project we're working on outside Los Angeles."
"Not long enough for that."
"I have a house in Florence," he said.
She smiled at him, her lips a sensual curve. "I spend very little time in Italy."
He couldn't invite her for dinner tonight; it was a yearly ritual that he have dinner with Belle after the garden party so she could dissect all the guests and savor the latest gossip. "Have dinner with me tomorrow night."
"I already have plans," she said.
"Are you married? Engaged?" Slade said, failing to disguise the urgency in his voice. He had a few inflexible rules as far as women were concerned, one being that he never had an affair with a woman who was already taken.
"No and no," she said emphatically.
"Divorced?" he hazarded.
Clea smiled, her teeth even and white, her eyes laughing at him. His head reeled. "I like the company of men very much."
"Men in the plural."
She was now openly laughing. "In the plural overall, one at a time in the specific."
Didn't he operate the same way with women? So why did he hate her lighthearted response? He said, "I'm not inviting you for dinner tonight because Belle and I have an annual and long-standing date."
Clea's lashes flickered. For her own reasons, she didn't like hearing that Slade Carruthers and Belle were longtime friends. She said calmly, "Then perhaps we aren't meant to talk further about windmills."
"Meet me tomorrow morning at Fisherman's Wharf," Slade said.
"Why would I do that?"
Because you're so beautiful I can't think straight. "So I can buy you a Popsicle."
"Popsicle?" She stumbled over the word. "What's that?"
"Fruit-flavored ice on a stick. Cheap date." She raised her brows artlessly. "So you're tight with your money?"
"I don't think you'd be overly impressed were I to splash it around."
"How clever of you," she said slowly, not altogether pleased with his small insight into her character.
"Ten in the morning," he said. "Pier 39, near the Venetian carousel. No dress code."
"Beneath your charm — because I do find you charming, and extremely sexy — you're ruthless, aren't you?"
"It's hard to combine raspberry Popsicles with ruthlessness," he said. Sexy, he thought. Well.
"I — "
"Slade, how are you, buddy?"
Slade said, less than enthusiastically, "Hello there, Keith. Keith Rowe, from Manhattan, a business acquaintance of mine. This is Clea Chardin. From Milan. Where's Sophie?"
Keith waved his glass of champagne somewhat drunkenly in the air. "Haven't you heard? The Big D."
Clea frowned. "I don't understand."
"Divorce," Keith declaimed. "Lawyers. Marital assets. Alimony. In the last four months I've been royally screwed — marriage always boils down to money in the end, don't you agree?"
"I wouldn't know," Clea said coldly.
Slade glanced at her. She was pale, her eyes guarded. But she'd never divorced, or so she'd told him. He said, "I'm sorry to hear that, Keith."
"You're the smart one," Keith said. "He's never married, Chloe. Never even been engaged." He gulped the last of his champagne. "Evidence of a very shu — oops, sorry, Chloe, what I meant was superior IQ."
"Clea," she said, even more coldly.
He bowed unsteadily. "Pretty name. Pretty face. I've noticed before how Slade gets all the really sexy broads."
"No one gets me, Mr. Rowe," she snapped. "Slade, I should be going, it's been nice talking to you."