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'Remind me again why I dragged my jet-lagged body to a wedding with you when I could be sleeping it off in the comfort of my own bed?'
Mariel Davenport glanced at her sister Phoebe over the obligatory glass of champagne—except Mariel's glass sparkled with mineral water. After the stress of packing and avoiding the press, then the long-haul flight from Paris, the last thing she needed was alcohol.
She skimmed the elite crowd, dripping with diamonds and couture and French perfume. Some she knew; most were strangers. Ten years away was a long time.
Phoebe flashed a smile, brown eyes sparkling. 'Because you're my big sister and you love me, and we haven't seen each other since that Mediterranean cruise three years ago.'
Mariel arched a brow. 'Not because your boyfriend left you in the—?'
' Ex-boyfriend,' Phoebe snarled, all humour extinguished. She topped up her champagne flute from the bottle on the nearby table with a sharp chink of glass on crystal. 'Kyle's history.' She tossed back a mouthful of bubbly in disgust. 'Men. Who'd trust them?'
The words pierced the thin armour Mariel had struggled to wrap around herself since leaving Paris. 'Who indeed?'
Phoebe's eyes widened in obvious dismay. 'Oh, Mari, I'm sorry…'
'Don't be. I was a fool; it won't happen again.' She bit down on the inside of her lower lip. Hadn't she made that very same vow once before? Right here in her home town?
'That's the spirit.' Phoebe's firm nod had her blonde bangs bouncing. 'New Year's resolution: no men. Until the next full moon at least.' She grinned, then tucked her hand into the crook of Mariel's arm as the band struck up a popular party hit. 'Let's mingle.' The happy couple had left but the revelry lived on. 'Or we could dance,' she suggested. 'It'll take your mind off things.'
Mariel shook her head. 'You know I love nothing better than a good party, but not tonight.' What sane people would choose New Year's Day to get married anyway? She raised her glass and pointed it towards the crowd congregating on the makeshift dance floor beyond the open French doors of the luxurious old Adelaide Hills mansion. 'You go ahead. I'm fine. I'll just loiter here a while.'
'Are you sure?'
'Positive.' She fixed a smile on her lips and shooed Phoebe away. 'Go.'
Mariel watched her sister thread her way through the colourful crowd, her silk and diamonds shimmering beneath the heavy chandelier. Only then did she allow herself a much-needed sigh. Phoebe knew nothing of the mess Mariel had left behind in Paris except that it was over between her and French fashion photographer Luc Girard, her business partner of seven years and lover for the past five.
He was probably the reason she'd thrown up— twice—somewhere over China. She massaged the heel of her hand over the affected area. The organza of the latest and probably last addition to her after-five wardrobe shifted beneath her palm.
Turning her back to the room, she sipped water and studied the guests through the gilt-edged mirror over the mantelpiece.
The bride's parents, who'd spared no expense for their daughter's special day, were conversing with another wealthy Hills couple near the floor-to-ceiling ice sculpture, now dripping in Adelaide's January heat.
Was that little Johnny…? What was his last name? Mariel frowned at the blond guy, trying to remember. Not so little now, she thought with a twinge of nostalgia. And there was nothing she liked better than a guy in a well-tailored suit. As her gaze moved on, she realised several of the well-suited men were eyeing her up. And not-so-little Johnny What's-his-name was headed her way. Great. Just what she didn't need.
She knew she attracted men. With her face on the cover of Europe's top magazines, and becoming a familiar face in Australia, it was inevitable. But tonight she could have done without the attention. Especially tonight, since she'd just sworn off men for life. Another sigh slipped past her lips as she automatically checked her lipstick in the mirror, straightened her shoulders and turned, smile back in place.
Well, surprise, surprise. Daniel Huntington the Third, who refused to answer to anything but Dane, leaned a shoulder against the doorway and watched Mariel Davenport hold court, her little flock of male admirers clustered around her, apparently hanging on every word that spilled from those luscious coral lips.
She was the last person he'd expected to see here this evening. Nor had he anticipated the quick punch to his solar plexus as he cast a critical eye over the breezy black halterneck number, with its plummeting neckline and incy-wincy skirt. He was pretty sure if he stood close enough and let his eyes skim casually down he'd see her navel.
Not that he intended to stand that close. With his six-foot-three advantage he could see her well enough from here. He thought he might just be able to smell the perfume she used to wear—that hint of black roses and sweet sin seemed to waft across the few feet between them. Alluring, seductive. It suited her, from the tips of her raven-black hair, piled on top of her head, to the soles of her perfectly pedicured feet and shiny stiletto sandals.
He couldn't see her feet, of course, or those mile-long legs that had her topping out at nearly six foot, but he knew her well enough. First class all the way.
She hadn't noticed him yet, but he lifted his beer in mock salute, then poured a fortifying mouthful of the cool bitter brew down his suddenly dry throat.
Was she with someone? he wondered. Her French lover? Odd how his fingernails bit into his palms at the thought. He'd been fine about that little detail until a moment ago.
Until he'd seen her again in all that glorious flesh.
But, no, she must have come alone—because if she'd had a partner Dane was pretty sure the man would be attached to her side like some fashion accessory.
He flexed the fingers of his free hand, flicked them against his thigh, and watched her flash that cover-winning smile at her fans. The one thing Mariel loved was attention, be it personal or the camera. And from what he'd heard about her career over the past years, and seen in the latest beauty magazine that her sister had touted, the camera loved Mariel.
Fashion designer turned photographic model.
He considered speaking to her, but he wasn't about to become one of her fawning admirers. Good grief, a couple of those guys had been exploring Play Dough and finger paint when she'd been experimenting with make-up and mobile phones. Did they not realise? He expelled a harsh breath through his nostrils. He could wait.
'Ah, here's our very own newly announced Babe magazine's Bachelor of the Year.' Justin Talbot materialised beside him. 'I was wondering where you'd got to, my friend.'
'Looks like you found me.' Dane glanced his way, mentally shaking his head at the snazzy dove-grey waistcoat, matching tie and wing-tip collar Justin's new wife had obviously picked out. Dane didn't believe in conforming to dress code unless it was for a funeral.
'You've done us proud,' said Justin, clapping a hand on Dane's shoulder.
'Easy for you to say.' Dane scowled, his gaze unerringly finding Mariel again. 'You dobbed me in.'
As if he needed more women hounding him. Since he'd won the title he'd grown very weary of the relentless parade of would-be starlets clamouring for his attention.
'Think of it as doing your bit for charity,' Justin said.
'There are better ways to raise funds,' Dane muttered. 'And the press is having a field-day.'
'What did you expect? Millionaire businessman, founder of OzRemote and eligible bachelor. Hey… it's Mariel Davenport.'
Dane felt Justin's voice switch from jovial to slightly breathless like a prickle between his shoulderblades. He shrugged the feeling off. 'So it appears.'
'Jee-ee-z. Looking good, Mariel,' Justin murmured. 'Even better than that photo spread Phoebe showed us. She hasn't been back in… how long? What's she doing at Carl and Amy's wedding?'
'Ten years.' And five months. And your guess is as good as mine,' he muttered, frowning into his amber liquid.
'Wasn't she living with some French guy?'
'You spoken to her yet?'
'Nope.' Sweat trickled down Dane's back, making his shirt stick. He tossed back the remainder of his beer and thought about stepping outside for some fresh air. The atmosphere was stifling in here, even with the air-con working overtime.
'Why not?' Justin queried. 'You two were pretty close. I remember—'
'That was a long time ago.'
A lifetime ago… The night before she'd left for overseas. In her bedroom, the full moon filtering through the open window, its silver light bathing her milk-white skin, her eyes black pools of wonder, gazing up at him…
Dane shifted his stance, cleared his throat as every hot-blooded cell south of his larynx mobilised. 'You right for a drink?'
'We're leaving in a moment, Cass has an early start tomorrow. I'm going to say hi to Mariel before we go; want to join me?'
Dane shook his head. 'I'll catch up with her later.' He turned and pointed himself in the direction of the nearest drinks waiter.
But, damn, he couldn't let it go. His head swivelled in time to see Justin plant a kiss full on Mariel's smiling lips. He knew it meant nothing more than what it was— a welcome home—but a sudden tension locked Dane's jaw, making his teeth clench. His fingers tightened around his glass.
He watched his mate whisper something close to her ear and Mariel turned slowly to look Dane's way. So slowly—or maybe it was just that the moment seemed to crawl to a stop—that he had time to experience, in graphic detail, the full effect of that face, that attention, focused wholly on him.
The way the high cheekbones flushed with colour, the flutter of long black lashes as she blinked those emerald eyes at him, just once. The way her glossy lips parted slightly—in surprise or dismay?—then lifted in-finitesimally at the corners, resembling something approaching warmth.
Whatever—it faded like a rose in winter, no doubt as she took in his rigid jaw and neutral stare. Because, frankly, he couldn't seem to drum up anything else. She lifted a hand, let it hover a moment before she smoothed a non-existent strand of hair behind her ear.
Her eyes were still locked with his. Until her gaze lifted to his hair. And, yeah, some might say it needed a trim. Her nostrils flared slightly as her gaze shifted to his open-necked shirt. His throat prickled; his Adam's apple bobbed. Hell. He was glad he didn't have a woman, particularly an ex-fashion designer, telling him how he should dress.
And thanks to Justin's intervention he had no alternative—manners dictated he at least speak to her. Forcibly unclenching his teeth and loosening his grip on the glass, he started forward.
Mariel watched Dane Huntington saunter towards her, his casual, almost arrogant manner all too familiar. Whatever Justin was saying—if he was saying anything at all—faded. Her stomach juddered once, as if she'd hit more of that air turbulence she'd experienced on the final approach into Adelaide.
Phoebe, where are you? Get me out of here, she pleaded silently. She should have known she'd bump into him sooner or later, but Dane was the last man she wanted to face right now, with her body clock out of sync and her digestive system doing nasty things to her insides.
She'd wanted to look her best when she saw him again. Show him what he'd missed out on all those years ago, when she'd been a naïve seventeen-year-old who'd thought the young Dane Huntington was her sun and moon and everything in between.
Well, she wasn't so naïve now, even if it had taken every one of those ten years. Seconds ticked by, but they felt like minutes. His cool grey gaze remained fused with hers, no hint of a smile on those beautiful lips. Lifting her chin, she sucked in her stomach and eye-balled him boldly as he drew nearer.
Dark hair with glints of auburn covered his ears and carelessly kissed the back of his neck. Some things hadn't changed, she thought with attempted disdain.
And he still scorned traditional dress code. He was tie-less. His black collarless shirt with white stitching along the seams was undone at the neck and revealed tanned skin and a smattering of dark hair.
The fashion designer inside her winced. Black jeans, to one of Adelaide's Society Weddings of the Year, for heaven's sake? But, to her chagrin, the wholly inappropriate image made her thighs melt and her pulse do a strange little blip.
She straightened, clutching her glass tighter to hide the fact that her fingers were trembling, and said, 'Hello, there,' before he opened his mouth. 'Happy New Year.'
She did not lean in for a kiss.
'Mariel. Happy New Year to you, too. How long have you been back?'
'I flew in yesterday morning.'
'Just in time for Carl and Amy's big day.'
His whisky-on-velvet voice flowed over her and he smiled—finally—and her pulse did another of those little blips. With her height she didn't often experience men looking down at her and it made her feel delicate. And feminine.
She stiffened. She didn't want to feel delicate and feminine with Dane Huntington. Ever again. But—and how crazy was this?—she wanted him to see her that way.
To remember… Did he remember?
How could he forget?
'Coincidentally Dane mentioned you just the other day,' Justin said, and Mariel saw the familiar little tic in Dane's jaw.
'Oh?' Dane had been talking about her? 'Why was that?'
'My wife, Cass, and I are thinking about going to Europe in October, and since you live in Paris he thought maybe you could give us the guided tour.'
'Did he?' She speared Dane with the pointy end of her gaze. 'He didn't try to look me up when he was there. When was it—five years ago, Dane? Mum mentioned it in an e-mail.'
'It was business, Mariel,' he said. 'There wasn't time for sightseeing. Or anything else. It was in and out. What brings you home?'
'Family. I needed a break.'
'One would think if you wanted to be with family you'd have come a week earlier and celebrated Christmas with them.'
Oh. 'I'm ashamed to say I left it too late and the airlines were fully booked.' She refused to look away beneath his close scrutiny. Look away and he'd know she was lying.
'That's too bad.'
'I'm here now.'
'So you are,' he said lazily, eyes still locked on hers.
Justin, obviously feeling the weird tension, switched topics. 'Our Dane won Babe's Bachelor of the Year contest.'
'Is that so?' Mariel lifted her glass and took a sip to soothe her throat, noting the dark look Dane flashed at the other man.
'You remember the one,' Justin went on. 'Babe magazine runs it every year.'
'Ah, yes, that magazine,' she drawled, infusing her tone with a large dollop of sarcasm, and was rewarded with a flare of colour on Dane's cheekbones.