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Jax Maroney had traded clear outback skies for this.
The exclusive enclave of Armidale, home of Australia's premier jewellers hosting Melbourne's A-listers tonight, and he'd crashed the party.
Damn usurpers. They were more than rivals, they were the enemy. The enemy who'd deliberately ignored him tonight; who'd whispered and pointed and glared. The enemy he'd have to court to achieve his goal.
That irked. He didn't give a damn what they thought of him personally but the fact he needed these people onside in the business arena
Regret pinched his gut, tempered by an ever-present slow-burning anger against the one person who'd landed him in this predicament.
'Careful. Next time the door opens and the wind blows in, your frown will stick.'
Surprised anyone had approached him considering his determined distance from the rent-a-crowd at this shindig, he glared at the smart-mouthed blonde, dripping with enough diamonds to keep his Western Australian mine in business for the next decade.
'What's it to you?'
She was undeterred by his surliness, her ruby-slicked lips curving into a teasing smile. 'The launch of a Seaborn spring collection deserves champagne and caviar and exuberance.'
She pointed at his forehead. 'That frown you've got going on? Doesn't fit.'
'Because most of the snobs here can't move their Botox-ed brows anyway?'
His derisive stare swept the designer-clad, immaculately coiffed, moneyed crowd who shunned him for the sins of his father.
To his surprise, her smile widened. 'You're probably right but you should play nice.'
'Because the undercover security doesn't take kindly to brusque, boorish types just standing back and surveying. They'll think you're a thief.'
Her brash glance swept him from head to foot and his gut inexplicably tightened.
When her defiant gaze met his, he swore he glimpsed heat. 'on second thoughts, maybe not.'
Against his better judgement, he felt compelled to match wits with the intriguing blonde. He wasn't used to people challenging him. In business or otherwise.
He liked his women transparent and uncomplicated. The bold blonde? Anything but.
He waved her away. 'Shouldn't you be mingling?'
'Shouldn't you be smiling?'
His mouth twitched and she raised a fist in victory. 'There. Knew you could do it. Not so hard once you try.'
Nonplussed, he shook his head. 'Who are you?'
She screwed up her nose and poked out her tongue in a mock scary expression.
'Your worst nightmare, Happy Face.'
The laughter spilled from his lips, alien and odd sounding. When was the last time he'd laughed?
'A mouth like that can get you into trouble.' His gaze focused on her lips, the glossy sheen highlighting their fullness, their sensuality, and that surprising twinge in his gut moved lower.
She cocked a pretend gun with her thumb and forefinger and pulled the trigger. 'I'm all for trouble.'
Impressed by her audacity, he decided to call her bluff.
'Big statement, but can you deliver?'
With a nonchalant shrug, she turned away, leaving him with a tantalising view of bare skin to her waist where the emerald satin of her designer dress tied in an incongruous bow.
She took two steps, paused and glanced over her shoulder.
'If you stick around after the launch, you might find out, if you're lucky.'
She sashayed away, working her hips for his benefit, the satin clinging to a fine ass.
He'd given himself thirty minutes to show Melbourne's high society he was back and there wasn't one damn thing they could do about it.
Until the daring blonde had crashed his resentment party for one and dangled that tempting offer.
He didn't want to be here any longer than he had to but sticking around now held a certain appeal.
Ruby grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, needing to hold something before she gave in to the urge to rip off the rare green diamond plaque de cou necklace and have a good scratch.
How her sister Sapphie did this on a regular basis, she had no idea.
The diamonds weighed a ton around her neck and she was sure her ear lobes had lengthened by an inch with the matching earrings dangling in a waterfall of sparkle.
While the crowd oohed and aahed, admiring the pieces she'd created especially for this collection, she had to curl her fingers into her palms to stop herself from scratching.
Her oversensitive skin beneath the jewels prickled. Wouldn't the press have a field day with that: Ruby Seaborn, lapidary and creative genius behind the Seaborn's latest spring collection, allergic to her own inventive masterpieces?
It had to be her subconscious telling her she belonged behind the scenes rather than a genuine physiological reaction. She only used the finest metals and gems. Gems that were harder to come by these days thanks to Maroney Mine, the corporate mining giant devouring everything and everyone in its path.
If she ever got her hands on Jax Maroney, the CEO, she'd throttle him.
Speaking of getting her hands on a guy She darted a glance over her shoulder at the truculent Adonis propped against the far wall, deliberately detached from the milling crowd.
He might be wearing a charcoal pinstriped suit, baby-blue business shirt and indigo tie, but that was where his respectability ended.
With unreadable ebony eyes, an inscrutable expression and that imperceptible curl of disgust to a very sexy top lip, the guy had bad boy written all over him.
Along with the folded arms and ominous glare, he'd been rudely brusque when she'd approached. He didn't want to be here. Which begged the question why he'd turned up. And who was he?
The Seaborns had built their reputation on exclusivity. Every person here tonight had lineage and class and money. Money to burn.
Money her family's jewellery business needed desperately if they were to survive.
She stared a fraction too long, her gaze locking with his, and as he slowly raised a mocking eyebrow a shiver skittered over her skin, making it prickle from more than the necklace.
Unaware she'd been holding her breath, she exhaled and saluted before turning away. She slipped a finger beneath the front-fastening choker-style necklace that seemed to have a stranglehold.
It didn't help, his potent stare eliciting a heat that coursed through her body like a power surge.
He exuded something raw, something primitive, and she unwittingly responded on a visceral level, the tug of excitement deep inside unexpected and unwelcome.
She'd usually toy with a guy like him, have her fun then move on. He so wasn't her type.
But with Sapphie convalescing on enforced leave, she'd assumed more duties than she could handle. Creating the pieces she loved had been surpassed by spokeswoman and modelling tonight, with more to come. Much more.
Even now, several months since her sis had almost collapsed and she'd learned the truth, she wished the last year had been different.
She wished Mum and Sapphie had trusted her.
Dealing with grief over losing their mum had been tough and she'd admired Sapphire assuming CEO duties of Seaborn's as well as being the face of the company. After all, it was what Saph had been groomed to do since she could walk.
She'd never envied her sister the responsibility, preferring to indulge her creative side, happy to be the scatty, carefree Seaborn.
Thanks to Sapphie's bombshell before she had an enforced recuperation, Ruby now had more responsibility than she could possibly want or imagine.
And it made her mad as hell it'd taken her sister's near breakdown for her to discover the truth.
Throw in Seaborn's ever-decreasing profit margins as chain stores flourished under a worsening economy, and Maroney Mine doing its best to drive them out of business, and the last few months had sucked.
But she had twelve weeks while Sapphie recuperated to turn Seaborn's around, twelve weeks to prove to her sister and the rest of the corporate world she wasn't the flighty airhead they thought, and kick some business butt.
As Ruby moved through the crowd, accepting air-kisses and congratulations for her latest creations, her gaze drifted towards the surly stranger too many times for her liking.
Worse, whenever it did, he was staring straight at her.
Determined to shake the feeling they were inexplicably linked by a force of attraction bigger than the both of them, she flitted from one group to another, laughing at nothing, smiling at anything.
All too soon the event ended and she sagged on a stool in relief. Until her cousin Opal tapped her on the shoulder and shoved a manifesto under her nose.
'How many pieces did we sell?'
Her heart sank as Opal frowned and shook her head. 'Not enough.'
'Damn.' She snatched the listing and scanned it, the lack of gold foil sale stickers making her stomach gripe with angst.
Seaborn's was seriously floundering and nothing, even their biggest launch and her best pieces yet, could save it.
Opal squeezed her arm. 'It'll be okay.'
Unexpected tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away, not trusting herself to speak until she did. 'It'll have to be.'
For Sapphie's sake, for her sake, for the sake of a family business she had no intention of losing.
Unbeknown to her until recently, Sapphie had made a promise to their mum on her death bed last year when Mathilda Seaborn, the matriarch of Seaborn's for the last fifteen years, had been pumped full of morphine but completely lucid.
The pancreatic cancer might have ravaged her body but it hadn't touched her astute business brain; her mum had made Sapphire promise to do whatever it took to make her legacy survive. For them. For their children.
Considering Ruby couldn't sustain a long-term relationship any longer than Sapphie, nor did she want to, kids were a long way off.
Irrelevant now, with her sister under strict doctor's orders after collapsing from stress and exhaustion because she'd shouldered a burden they both should've shared.
It had been a double shock, learning of Seaborn's grim financials, and the fact she'd been inadvertently responsible for Sapphie's collapse.
And she had been, no matter which way she looked at it. She'd always been the indulged Seaborn, the one allowed to follow her dreams and travel and kick back with Sapphie happily shadowing Mum, learning everything she could.
While Sapphie had studied hard to obtain straight As, she'd coasted, lucky to pull her usual Cs up to an occasional B.
While Sapphie had done a master's in Economics as a foregone conclusion, she'd breezed through an Arts major, not really caring whether she finished or not because she'd already started creating signature pieces for Seaborn's.
While Sapphie had no social life due to Seaborn's commitments, she'd danced and partied her way around Melbourne with a hip crowd as laid-back as her.
Little wonder Mum hadn't trusted her with Seaborn's viability.
Time to prove her mum and Sapphie wrong.
She might've been too self-absorbed in her carefree, creative life before. Now she had a chance to set things right by taking Seaborn's out of the red and firmly into the black.
Opal nudged her. 'By the way, we've got a hanger-on.'
Ruby glanced over her shoulder in time to see Security hassling Happy Face. The fact he'd waited around made her pulse skitter and she clamped down the urge to grin in triumph despite the dastardly news Opal had just delivered.
Men were so predictable. A little light-hearted flirtation and they thought you'd handed them your heart on a plate.
'I'll take care of this.'
Opal frowned as Happy Face glowered at their security guard, towering over him by a foot. 'Sure?'
'Yeah, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.' Opal's frown eased at her cliche as she hugged her. 'Thanks for your help, hun, couldn't have done it tonight without you.'
'I'll have to add hostess with the mostest to my geologist credentials.'
Ruby bumped her with her hip. 'You bet. Now off you go, head home and I'll take care of our recalcitrant guest.'
Casting one last doubtful glance in Happy Face's direction, Opal headed out the back.
Ruby squared her shoulders to do battle. The necklace still made her neck itch, her feet ached from wearing stilettos rather than the ballet flats she preferred and the satin sliding over her hips set off some strange static reaction that zapped her at inopportune moments.
Like now, as she strode towards Happy Face, intent on kicking some surly butt.
'What seems to be the problem here, Fritz?'
Their long-term security guard's stern expression softened as he turned towards her. They'd always had a bond since he'd slipped her gum drops, her favourite treat all through childhood, when her mum wasn't looking.
She'd loved coming here as a kid, had loved the glitter and the sparkle and the hush. No way would she lose it.
Fritz gestured towards Happy Face, who glared at her as if his impending eviction were all her fault. 'This gentleman won't leave.'
Fritz's audibly icy gentleman indicated he thought the guy anything but.
Considering her feet ached, her skin still prickled beneath the necklace and she couldn't wait to slip out of the clingy satin, it was time to revoke her earlier invitation. She didn't have time to waste flirting with some guy she'd never see again. She had more important things to do, such as come up with another scheme to raise much-needed funds to keep Seaborn's afloat.
Ready to give the stranger his marching orders, she made the mistake of locking gazes with him again.
Daring sparked sable flecks, taunting her to see if she'd carry through with her earlier challenge.
Damn him. How could he know she'd never backed down from a challenge?
Youngest to brave the Mad Mouse roller coaster at Luna Park, youngest to surf Bells Beach in her family, youngest creator Seaborn's had ever had.
She rose to any challenge and she wasn't going to let this mysterious man get one up on her.
'It's fine, Fritz, I invited him to stay for a coffee.'
Fritz's bushy brows joined in the middle but he didn't dare question her judgement. He'd never do that, his loyalty to Seaborn's unwavering.
'Do you want me to lock up?'
She nodded. 'Please. I'll take our guest upstairs so close up the showroom and head home.'
If Fritz thought it unusual she was taking a stranger to her apartment, he didn't show it, his expression carefully blank. ''Night, Miss Ruby.'
She waited until Fritz had walked far enough away not to overhear before she swivelled back.
Her plan to renege on her offer of a coffee fizzled when the guy's lips curved into a devastating smile that snatched her breath. She'd suffered the same oxygen deprivation when she'd glimpsed a pink diamond for the first time and she surreptitiously rubbed under her ribs and over her diaphragm, willing the air to fill her lungs so she wouldn't feel so wonky.
'Coffee sounds good.'
How could one smile make her feel so uncertain, so hesitant, so thrilled?
She hated feeling this off balance. Which was why she liked her men arty and laid-back, not glowering and dangerous. 'Actually, it's been a long night'
'Running scared?' He ducked his head to murmur in the vicinity of her ear and she could've sworn she swayed.
If his warm breath fanning her cheek weren't bad enough, his citrus scent would've completed the job of knocking her off kilter.
He smelled delicious, crisp and sexy and devourable.