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Every man in the room was staring at Kia Benton. And Brant Matthews was one of them. He'd seen many beautiful women in his life but none who affected him like the woman who'd entered the ballroom of Darwin's Shangri-La Hotel. Australia's most northerly city may possess a tropical lifestyle that was the envy of the rest of the country, but it still didn't hold a candle to this woman's beauty.
Dressed for an evening that promised glitz and glamour, Kia looked stunning tonight, with her ashblond hair pulled back in a stylish chignon, her perfectly made-up features accentuated by the black liner circling her eyes.
The eyes of a seductress, Brant mused, his gaze sliding down over bare shoulders to the shimmery silver dress that hugged her breasts, then slid over slim hips and long legs.
But it wasn't just her looks that coiled sexual hunger in the pit of his stomach. She had something that called to him on another level. A quality he'd never found in another woman, not even in his ex-fiancée, Julia. Hell, definitely not Julia. Julia had only been about one thing.
His mouth tightened. He had to remember that Kia was no different. Both women wanted the same thing.
He'd been suspicious of Kia from the moment he'd stepped onto the plane on his way back from Europe and caught sight of a photograph of her and his partner Phillip in the society section of a Darwin magazine. It was being read by the man next to him, and the picture had shown her arm in arm with Phillip at a cocktail party, looking very pleased with herself. The last he heard, Phillip still had his secretary from years back. This Kia was a total shock.
Thecaption had read, "Has one of Australia's richest bachelors finally been hooked by his new personal assistant? Miss Kia Benton obviously knows a thing or two about getting â€˜personal.'"
Yes, this woman knew how to get her hooks into someone all right. But what she didn't know was that he'd heard her on the telephone when he'd gone into the office the next day.
Of course I'm working on getting myself a rich man, she'd been saying when he'd passed by Phillip's office and seen her leaning against the desk, looking for all the world as if she owned the place. Then she'd laughed and said, It's as easy to love a rich man as a poor one, right?
This was the reason she'd made herself indispensable to his business partner so quickly. Within two months she'd had Phillip eating out of her hand. Oh, yes, she was a gold digger, this one. A beautiful, deceitful gold digger.
"Oh, don't they make a lovely couple?" one of the executive wives tossed into the conversation going on around him, pulling Brant from his thoughts and dropping him back into the Christmas festivities that were a necessary evil at this time of year.
"Yes, they're perfect together," one of the others agreed after all heads turned toward Kia and Phillip standing beneath the Merry Christmas sign in the doorway.
Then the head of the Legal Department's wife put her hand on her husband's arm. "Hon, I don't know what they're putting in the water at your office, but she's beautiful."
Simon puffed up with an odd sort of fatherly pride. "That's Kia. She's got brains as well as beauty."
Brains as well as beauty.
And she had no qualms about using those assets, Brant thought, hating the pull of her attraction but unable to do anything about it.
Dammit. If only he'd met her first. But two months ago, as senior partner, he'd gone to Paris to establish their new office and get everything up and running. Phillip hadn't wanted to go because he'd been heavily involved with his then girlfriend, Lynette.Yet when he'd returned a month later, Phillip's secretary had resigned due to ill health and Kia had been firmly ensconced as Phillip's personal assistant during work hours.
And his constant companion out of hours.
Of course, if he'd seen her first, they would have been lovers straight away. No doubt about it. He'd known it from the moment he'd gazed into her sparkling aquamarine eyes.
Because she knew what she did to him, that's why. She knew the attraction he felt for her. This deep, pulsing need to make her his own. She merely had to glance his way and sizzling heat coursed through his veins. Even now he could feel himself burning to be inside her, feeling her close around him as he moved ever so slowly in and out, watching her eyelids flutter against her cheeks, hearing his name a murmur on the parted bow of her lips.
"She's got a brand new car, too," someone interrupted his thoughts, making him stiffen in disbelief. "A Porsche. It's fantastic."
"Lucky girl," one of the guys said. "Did Phil buy it for her?"
Simon darted a look at Brant, as if he knew this wasn't a subject they should be discussing in front of the boss. "Er - I'm not sure," the other man said awkwardly.
"It's understandable," Simon's wife added in a sympathetic tone. "He probably doesn't want her to have a similar accident to the one he had."
Pretending to ignore the conversation, Brant leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his whiskey. Late one night, Phil's car had broken down after he'd gone out on a date with Kia. When he'd stepped out to check the problem, a passing vehicle had clipped his leg, busting up his knee and breaking his ankle, leaving him with what would eventually be a permanent limp.
And Kiaâ€¦God bless her, Brant mused cynicallyâ€¦ had been quite happy ever since, going back and forth between the hospital and the office, assisting Phil with his workload. Through it all she must have been manipulating him to get the car. And a Porsche, to boot. Bloody hell. His friend and business partner deserved better than someone who was only using him for his bank account.
He was tempted to show Phil what sort of woman he was involved with. Kia would be easy enough to get into bed if he really put his mind to it. Only he couldn't. Not for her sake but for Phillip's. He knew how it felt for someone close to steal your woman.
And he'd be damned if he'd put the business at risk. He may've had to correct some of Phillip's poor decisions since they'd started buying up other businesses three years ago, but the last thing Brant wanted was instability within the company that was now riding the wave of phenomenal success.
Yet all of it could be jeopardized because of a woman who was out to get everything she could, he reminded himself as he watched the pair moving through the tables toward him, Kia pushing Phil's wheelchair but stopping to talk to people on the way. Oh, she was good at what she did. She knew how to work her audience.
Sickened that such beauty hid a heart of stone, Brant stood up. "Back in a minute," he muttered to no one in particular and headed for the exit behind him. His date had vanished into the nether regions of the ladies'room a while back, so he was unconcerned she would miss him until his return.
He needed to get outside and let the ocean air fill his lungs and clear away the smell of deception. Then maybe his body wouldn't ache so much for a woman who deserved nothing more than his contempt.
After finally reaching their table, Kia sat back with a glass of champagne and tried to relax. Brant seemed to have disappeared for a while, though she knew he'd be back. And he always affected her in some crazy way, no matter how hard she tried not to let him.
Tonight, for instance, it had started as soon as she entered the ballroom. She'd felt his eyes upon her, scrutinizing her, undressing her. This wasn't the only time she'd sensed his desire. Far from it. From the moment she'd met him she'd known he'd wanted her, despite himself. In his bed and out of it. Anywhere and anytime.
And as much as she had fought it, his want always bonded with a need deep inside her. That knowledge had pulsed through her veins tonight, making her breathless, wanting more, wanting him.
"Everything all right, Kia?"
She took a breath and fixed a smile on her lips for Phillip, fully aware of the attention from the other tables guests. "Everything's fine."
His gaze slid to her throat and a glint of humor appeared in his eyes. "I'm glad you like your present."
Her hand went to the sparkling diamond necklace he'd asked her to wear. He'd wanted her to keep it, but she'd refused, so they'd compromised and she'd said she'd wear it only for the night. "It's fabulous."
"A fabulous gift for a fabulous lady."
She shifted in her seat. Did he have to lay it on quite so thick? Just because he wanted to give the impression they were a couple didn't mean they should act like characters in a thirties melodrama. It made her uncomfortable.
Suddenly the hairs on the back of her neck began to rise. There Brant was, dancing with a woman at the far end of the dance floor. Her breath caught at the sight of him, desire shooting to every region in her body.
He was certainly something to look at. Handsome, wealthy, extremely sexy in a black suit that matched the color of his gleaming dark hair and fitted his lean body to perfection. He exuded an attraction she found difficult to deny.
"Who's that dancing with Brant?" a visitor to the table asked the question on Kia's mind.
"That's his date," someone replied.
Kia hid her surprise. Brant usually only dated blondes. Beautiful blondes with gorgeous figures and impeccable style, if the photographs in the newspaper were anything to go by. Certainly the women who frequented his office were blond and beautiful. And according to Evelyn, his personal assistant, so were the women who called him constantly on the phone.
This brunette was definitely not in his league. The woman wasn't beautiful, though she wasn't unattractive either. She just lacked the confidence of those other women, and that red-and-white floral dress looked totally wrong on her. It seemed to swallow her up. Just as Brant's presence seemed to be doing.
And didn't she know how that felt, she scoffed to herself as the other woman smiled shyly up at him and Brant returned the smile with a devastating one of his own. The woman stumbled, and who could blame her? Brant Matthews, Womanizer Extraordinaire, had struck again. Maybe she could suggest he have that printed on his business cards.
All at once she realized Phillip had spoken. "Sorry, Phillip. What did you say?"
"I said she's my new physiotherapist."
Ah, so this was Serena. They'd spoken on the telephone. But why had Brant chosen her as his date? It didn't make sense.
Then it hit her. "Phillip, you didn't," she said for his ears only. "Didn't what?" "Fix them up together."
He frowned. "Why not? I thought it would do Serena good to be asked out by someone like Brant. He didn't mind."
Oh, that poor girl. Why were men so insensitive at times?
"That's exactly why he's wrong for her." His brows drew closer together. "What do you mean?"
"She'll know people will be wondering what Brant sees in her and that'll make her feel even worse."
"I was only trying to help," he said a touch defensively. Kia's heart softened. "I know you were. It's just that!" How to explain the mind of a shy, insecure woman? It wasn't easy delving into her own past and reliving her inadequacies.
"Merry Christmas, Kia."
Without warning, Brant was beside her, his lips brushing against her cheek in a gesture that meant nothing yet everything. Kia's pulse almost fell over itself as his warm hand touched her bare shoulder and she caught a whiff of his masculine scent. Her throat went dry.
Then he moved away and held the chair out for his date. "Serena, this is Kia, Phillip's personal assistant."
"We've spoken on the telephone," Kia said with a smile as the woman sat down opposite her.
"Oh, yes." The other woman gave a wavering smile in return, and empathy stirred within Kia, helping her recover from the shock of Brant's greeting.
"Serena's a lovely name," Kia said, wanting to put her at ease.
Serena smiled tentatively. "You think so?" "It suits you," Brant said before Kia could respond. Serena blushed, looking quite pretty. "Thank you." He sat down and handed her a glass of champagne.