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She was never going to be happy again.
Why couldn't she stop that thought from circling her head?
Helen Hanson quietly rose from her chair and made her way from the wedding reception. Not a single person sitting at the crystal-bedecked table gave her a second glance. Why would they? They were all virtual strangers, connected strictly because of their connection to the bride, who'd already departed the reception with her devoted groom.
The ballroom was filled with people who were virtual strangers. And the ones who weren't strangers — most of them, anyway — would probably be glad of Helen's absence, should they happen to notice.
Her knees felt weak. Her heart was thudding. She very much feared she was beginning to sweat.
Perhaps she was having a hot flash.
She was only forty-one, but that didn't mean much. Menopause? Perimenopause? Simple insanity?
She pasted a pleasant smile on her face as she nodded blankly at the gazes she happened to intercept while she wound through the tables.
She might be falling apart, but she'd be damned if she'd let it show.
She was never going to be happy again. "Stop it," she whispered to herself as she slipped out into the solitude of the corridor. The narrow heels of her Manolos sank into the thick ivory carpet and she pressed her palm flat against the silky-sheened wallpaper, steadying herself.
A young couple, laughing, rounded the corner at the end of the hall and Helen lowered her hand, managing another smile.
"Mrs. Hanson," the young woman, Samara, greeted her. "Didn't Jenny look beautiful?"
Helen nodded. Samara had been Jenny's maid of honor. "She did. As do you."
The girl flushed prettily and waved a little as her date dragged her back to the reception.
Alone again, Helen's smile faded and she walked down the hall. She wanted nothing more than to escape. To close herself in her hotel room where she could replace her couture gown with her soft fleecy sweats that were about a hundred years old and bury her head in her pillows. There, she wouldn't have to maintain the smile, the pleasant facade, the veneer of confidence that was meant to assure everyone that she knew what she was doing.
Damn you, George.
Wasn't anger one of the typical stages of grief? If it was, she didn't feel as if she'd ever get off that particular tread-board.
Her eyes burned and she started to duck into the ladies' restroom, but the sound of feminine laughter coming from inside stopped her, and she kept walking down the hall, turning corners, this way and that, only reversing her direction once again when she'd reached the kitchen and realized she was getting in the way of the busy catering staff.
She hauled in a shaking breath, smoothing her hands over the sides of her drawn-back hair.
Get a grip, Helen.
This is a happy day.
Jenny's wedding day. Your daughter's wedding day. To a man, a truly good man whom Helen considered a friend, even.
She closed her eyes for a moment.
It was a blessing. Jenny and Richard were married. And Jenny had wanted Helen to be there. The baby girl that she'd given up so very long ago had welcomed her.
Helen had no reason for tears.
They burned behind her eyes, anyway. "Mrs. Hanson."
The voice was deep. Only slightly accented. It could have belonged to any man, anywhere.
She still recognized it, and it made her spine go ramrod straight.
She wasn't just anywhere. She was in Tokyo.
And he wasn't just any man.
She blinked hurriedly, then angled her chin toward him, sending him a pleasant smile. "Mr. Taka," she greeted. "I hope you and your guest are enjoying the festivity."
Morito Taka — she knew some called him Mori, but those who did were close to him, which she was not — did not have an expression of happiness on his stern countenance. He looked the way he'd looked in every business meeting he'd grudgingly taken with her. Disinterested, aloof and completely dispassionate.
"Jenny and Richard, all of us, are honored by your presence this evening." The words were as sincere as she could make them. Not only was Jenny employed by a TAKA-owned newspaper, but it had been Helen's idea for Hanson Media Group to climb into bed with TAKA. It was the only way to save the company her husband had left in shambles. But that didn't mean she had enjoyed a moment of the experience.
"You seem...disturbed." He made the comment almost unwillingly. His gaze — so dark a brown it was almost obsidian — was unwavering.
She'd seen an occasional picture of the Japanese mogul before they'd met face-to-face — all part of her research — but it had in no way armed her for just how disconcerting that gaze was, even now after months of warily circling a business deal she'd managed to engineer. A deal that would either justify George's only real desire of her, or put her family's business entirely within this man's power.
The man himself was disconcerting, when it came down to it. And she couldn't exactly pin down the reason why. Morito Taka didn't stand as tall as George — he certainly didn't top six feet the way her late husband had. At forty-seven, he was also a couple of decades younger than George had been. His dark hair was very closely cropped, as were his mustache and goatee, the latter of which sported the slightest hint of gray.
She supposed some might consider the man handsome. She, however, was more concerned with the intentions behind those hawkish eyes.
"Women cry at weddings," she demurred. "I'm sure that isn't a habit owned wholly by Americans."
He almost smiled. She hoped. She couldn't quite tell. Not with the way the man's features were so strongly carved. There was nothing particularly friendly about Morito Taka's looks. He didn't possess the nearly constant smile of hospitality and hopefulness to please that his associates did.
Probably why she'd dreamed about him the other night. The man was a warrior. And she'd been the enemy who'd been more of a not-entirely-unwilling quarry.
Today, he wore a beautifully tailored tuxedo, in honor of the occasion. In her dream, he'd worn —
She brushed away the unwelcome thought, the way she had been for weeks. The man was only showing up in her dreams because of the power he held. It meant nothing more than that.
"You are not sitting with your family," he observed smoothly.
She didn't allow her smile to waver. Her three stepsons and their significants were scattered about the table seating in the reception. It might be a social event, but none of them could afford a missed opportunity for networking with the TAKA powers-that-be. But as the reception had worn on, as the champagne had flowed ever more freely, it had been natural for the family members to begin congregating.
She was always pleased to see the family together. She liked to think that during the long months since their father died, George's boys had become closer as a result of having to work together to save their heritage — Hanson Media Group. They'd all, each of them, even found happiness and love.
She also liked to think that she might have played some part in that.
But she wasn't naive, either. The boys — none of them truly boys, but that was how George had thought of them — tolerated her presence because they had to. Not because they particularly wanted to.
Jenny and Richard's reception was no exception. "I was sitting with friends of Jenny's family."
"But not your sons."
Thank you for pointing that out. She somehow managed not to flinch. "My husband's sons," she clarified, even though he knew that fact perfectly well. He knew most every personal detail about her, including the fact that she'd had a child — Jenny — when she was little more than a child herself. When the scandal of that secret broke, he'd tried putting the kibosh on the TAKA-Hanson merger.
First of all, Jenny was an employee of TAKA. But once it had been established that she was not a plant of Hanson Media's, there'd still been the scandal of it.
And heaven forbid scandal touch the pristine TAKA juggernaut. Nevertheless, good business sense had obviously overridden Morito's distaste for dirty laundry, because the TAKA lawyers were still meeting with them.
"Your husband's sons," he allowed. "It must be difficult."
She waited a moment, not entirely certain which "it" he was referring to. "I'm sorry, I don't know —"
"Your loss. It is recent. Clearly, it still affects you." George had died nine months ago. Morito undoubtedly knew that, just as she knew how long ago he'd taken charge of TAKA from his father, Yukio — a transition that hadn't gone entirely smoothly, though she'd had to dig a little to learn that fact. "Yes, it does affect me," she agreed quietly. "You lost your wife, too."
"Many years ago."
He inclined his head a few bare inches, but it was enough to acknowledge the sentiment. She was vaguely surprised. He didn't usually seem even that human. "Your guest will be missing you," she said, hoping that he would go, and go quickly, back to the side of the very beautiful young woman who had accompanied him to the reception.
"You left because you were unwell?"
"No. I'm not unwell. I'm fine."
"One rarely seeks privacy for...happy crying. You seemed distressed."
The fact that it was this man, of all men, to notice that particular detail didn't thrill her.
The fact that her eyes started burning all over again delighted her even less. She swallowed and was very much afraid that her smile was unraveling around the edges.
His eyes narrowed and he made a soft sound under his breath. "Come." He extended one hand, long-fingered, slightly bony and definitely masculine below the perfectly short cuff. "I know a quiet place."
Now that she wasn't blocking the kitchen entrance, the corridor was fairly quiet. She didn't want his sympathy, or his comfort. She wanted the miracle the merger with TAKA would provide. Only then would she ever feel some semblance of contentment again.
Only then would she have proven she had at least some value.
His fingers touched her elbow.
Human contact. From him again, of all people. Her eyes burned hotter. She ignored it. She should be used to ignoring her own pain; she'd been doing it for weeks. Months. Years.
She glanced up at him, the "thank you" on her lips disappearing as silently as a popping soap bubble.
His eyelashes were thick, she noted inconsequentially. "Thank you," the tardy words emerged, soft and husky. He bowed briefly, impersonally.
But his gaze dropped briefly, tellingly, to her lips. She managed to keep herself from stumbling over her own high heels as he guided her along the corridor. Maybe she was losing her mind. She was accustomed to the way men often looked at her.
She'd never expected such a look coming from Morito Taka.