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Kate felt even more like a piece of meat than usual, yet she clamped down on her churlish thoughts and pasted on her best professional smile as the bidding continued. The smack of the gavel beside her made her flinch minutely. The fact that the gavel was being wielded by a well-known A-list Hollywood actor was not making the experience any easier. Despite her years of experience as a top model, she was still acutely uncomfortable under scrutiny, but she had learnt to disguise it well.
'Twenty-five thousand. Twenty-five thousand dollars to the gentleman here in the front. Am I bid any higher?'
Kate held her breath. The man under the spotlight with the unctuous grin was a well-known Greek shipping magnate. He was old, short, fat and bald, and his beady obsidian eyes were devouring Kate as he practically licked his lips. For a second she felt intensely vulnerable and alone, standing here under the lights. A shudder went through her. If someone else didn't
'Ah! We've a bidder in the backthirty thousand dollars from the new arrival.'
A rush of relief flooded Kate and she tried to strain to see past the glaring spotlights to identify who the new bidder was. It appeared as if the ballroom lighting technicians were trying to find him too, with the spotlight lurching from coiffed person to coiffed person, all of whom laughed and waved it away. The bidder seemed determined to remain anonymous. Well, Kate comforted herself, whoever it was couldn't be any worse a prospect to kiss in front of all these people than Stavros Stephanides.
'And now Mr Stephanides here in the front is bidding forty thousand dollars things are getting interesting! Come on, folks, let'ssee how deep your pockets are. How can you turn down a chance to kiss this lovely lady and donate generously to charity?'
Kate's stomach fell again at Stephanides' obvious determinationbut then the actor spied movement in the shadows at the back. 'Fifty thousand dollars to the mysterious new bidder. Sir, won't you come forward and reveal yourself?'
No one came forward, though, and inexplicably the hairs rose on the back of Kate's neck. Then she saw the look of almost comic indignation on Stephanides' face as he swivelled around to see who his competitor was. The Greek's expression visibly darkened when someone leant low to speak in his ear. He'd obviously just been informed as to the identity of the mysterious fellow bidder. With an audible splutter Stephanides upped the ante by raising the bidding in a leap to one hundred thousand dollars. Kate held in her gasp at the extortionate amount, but her smile was faltering.
She became aware of the ripple of hushed whispers and a distinct frisson of excitement coming from the back; whoever this person was, he was creating quite a buzz. And then whoever it was also calmly raised their bidto a cool two hundred thousand dollars. It didn't look as if her ordeal was going to end anytime soon.
Tiarnan Quinn wasn't used to grand, showy gestures. His very name was the epitome of discretion. Discretion in everything: his wealth; his work; his life, and most definitely in his affairs. He had a ten-year-old daughter. He didn't live like a monk, but neither did he parade his carefully selected lovers through the tabloids in the manner so beloved of other men in his position: a divorced heterosexual multi-billionaire male in the prime of his life.
None of his lovers had ever kissed and told. He made sure that any ex-partner was so well compensated she would never feel the need to break his trust. He always got out before any messy confrontations, and he always kept his private life very private. None of his lovers ever met his daughter because he had no intention of marrying ever again, and to introduce them to Rosalie would be to invite a level of intimacy that was reserved solely for his family: his daughter, sister and mother.
His lovers provided him with relief. Nothing more, nothing less.
And yet here he was now, bidding publicly, albeit discreetly for the moment, in the name of charity, for a kiss with Kate Lancasterone of the most photographed women in the world. Because something in his mind and body was chafing, and for the first time in a long time he was thinking discretion be damned. He wanted this woman with a hunger he'd denied for too long. A hunger he'd only recently given himself permission fully to acknowledge and to believe it could be sated.
And it had been a long time buildingyears. He could see now that it had been building with a stealthy insidiousness into a subconscious need that was now very consciousa burning necessity. His mouth twisted; those years hadn't exactly been uneventful or allowed much time for contemplation. A shortlived marriage and an acrimonious divorce, not to mention becoming a single parent, had taken up a large part of that time. If he'd had the luxury of time on his hands he might have realised a lot sooner He halted his thoughts. No matter. He was here now.
His attention came back to Kate, focused on Kate, and he had the uncanny sensation of being in the right place at the right time. It was a sensation he usually associated with business, not something more emotional. He corrected himself; this wasn't about emotion. It was desire. Unfulfilled desire.
Perhaps it was because he'd finally allowed himself to think of it againthat moment ten years agobut it was as if the floodgates had opened on a dam. It had been little more than a kiss, and yet it was engraved more hotly onto his memory than anything he'd experienced before or after. It had taken all of his will-power and restraint to pull away from her that night. Since then Kate had been strictly off-limits to him for myriad reasons: because that incendiary moment had shaken him up a lot more than he cared to admit; because she'd been so young and his little sister's best friend.
He remembered the way her startlingly blue eyes had stared directly into his, as if she'd been able to see all the way into his soul. As if she'd wanted him to see all the way into hers. She'd looked at him like that again only a few weeks ago. And it had taken huge restraint for him to allow Kate to retreat back into her shell, to ignore his intense desire. Until now, when he knew he could get her on her own, could explore for himself if what he'd seen meant what he thought it did.
His sister's wedding had sparked off this burgeoning need, this awareness. He hadn't been thrown into such close proximity to Kate for years. But all through the ceremony and subsequent reception she'd held him back with that cool, frosty distance of hers. It was like being subjected to a chilly wind whistling over a deserted moor. He'd always been aware of it yet that day, for the first time in years, it had rankled. His interest had been piqued. Why was she always so cool, distant?
Admittedly they had a history that up until now he'd been quite happy not to unearth. He knew on some level that that night ten years ago had marked a turning point for him, and perhaps it was one of the reasons he'd found it so easy to relegate Kate to a place he had no desire to re-explore. Her studied indifference over the years had served to keep a lid on those disturbing memories.
And yet he knew he couldn't deny the fact that he'd always been aware of heraware of how she'd blossomed from a slightly gauche teenager into a stunningly assured and beautiful woman.
He'd thought he had that awareness and desire under control, but one night some years ago a girl had bumped into him in the street: blonde, caked in make-up, and wearing an outfit that was only a hair's breadth away from a stripper's. The feel of her body slamming into him, her huge blue eyes looking straight up into his, had scrambled his brain and fired his libido so badly that he'd sent his date home that night with some pathetic excuse and hadn't been able to look at another woman for weeksturned on by a girl in a tarty French maid's outfit because she'd borne some resemblance to
Tiarnan halted his wayward thoughts right there. He chafed at the resurgence of something so minor he'd thought long forgottenand at the implication that Kate had occupied a bigger place in his mind than he'd admitted to himself. He reassured himself that he'd had his own concerns keeping him more than occupiedand lovers who'd been only too warm and willing, making it easy to shut out the frosty indifference of one woman. Seeing Kate just once or twice a year had hardly been conducive to stoking the embers of a latent desire.
But just a few weeks ago at the baptism she'd turned and looked at him and that cool façade had dropped for the first time. She'd looked at him with such naked blatant need in those fathomless blue depths that he'd felt as if a truck had just slammed into him. For the first time Tiarnan had seen the heat of her passion under that all too cool surface. It was a heat he hadn't seen since that night, when it had combusted all around them. It could have ended so differently if he hadn't found a thread of control to cling onto.
In one instant, with one look, Tiarnan had been flung back in time, and all attempts to keep her off limits had been made redundant. It was almost as if he'd been put to sleep after that night, and now, with a roaring, urgent sucking-in of oxygen, he was brought back to painful, aching life.
She'd clammed up again after a few moments, but it had been enough of a crack in her armour
Blood heated and flowed thick through his veins as he took her in now. She was dressed in a dark pink silk cocktail dress, strapless, showing off the delicate line of her shoulders and collarbone, her graceful neck. Her long, luxuriant blonde hair her trademarkhung in loose waves over her shoulders, a simple side parting framing her face. And even though he was right at the back of the room those huge blue eyes stood out. Her soft rose-pink lips were full, the firm line of her jaw and straight nose transforming banal prettiness into something much more formidable. True beauty. There was fragility in the lines of her body, and yet a sexy lushness that would have an effect on every man in that roomsomething Tiarnan was very aware of. Uncomfortably so.
He felt a proprietorial urge to go and sweep her off that stage and out of everyone's sight. It only firmed his resolve, strengthened his sense of right.
His eyes drifted down with leisurely and very male appreciation, taking in slender shapely legs, it was clear why she'd become one of the most sought-after models in the world. She was, quite simply, perfect. She'd become a darling of the catwalks despite their predilection for a more emaciated figure; she was the face of a well-known lingerie company among countless other campaigns. Her cool, under-the-surface sensuality meant that people sometimes described her as cold. But the problem was he knew she wasn't.
He had the personal experience to know that she was very, very hot.
Why had he waited so long for this?
Tiarnan clamped down on looking again at what had made him suppress his desire for so longapart from the obvious reasons. He dismissed the rogue notion that rose unbidden and unwelcome that she'd once touched something deep within him. It must have been an illusion, borne up by the fact that they'd shared a moment in time, imbuing the experience with an enigmatic quality.
She'd displayed a self-possession at the age of eighteen that had stunned him slightly. He had to remind himself that he'd overestimated her naivety. She'd known exactly what she'd been doing then, and she was a grown woman now. Tiarnan's body tightened in anticipation. She was a woman of the worldthe kind of woman he could seduce. She was no longer an innocent A sharp pain lanced him briefly. It felt awfully like regret, and Tiarnan crushed it back down. He didn't do regret. He would not let her exert this sensual hold over him. He would not let her bring him back in time and reduce him to a mass of seething, frustrated desire with one look because of a kiss! He would seduce her and sate this lust that had been burning for too long under the surface. It was time to bring it out into the open.
All he could think about was how urgently he wanted to taste her again, touch her. She had once tried to seduce him. Now it was his turn. And this time they wouldn't stop at a kiss.
His attention came back to the proceedings. He saw Stephanides bid again. He had no intention of letting that man anywhere near Kate's lush mouth. But the Greek was stubborn and out to prove a pointespecially now that he'd been informed who it was bidding against him. He and Stephanides were old adversaries. Tiarnan casually made another bid, oblivious to the gasps and looks directed at him, oblivious to the whispers that came from nearby as people speculated if it was really him.
People's idle speculation and chatter was of little interest to him. What was of interest was Kate Lancaster, as she stood there now, with her huge doe eyes staring straight at him but not seeing him. She wouldsoon enough.
Stavros Stephanides finally admitted defeat with a terse shake of his head. A sense of triumph filled Tiarnan and it was heady. He hadn't felt the sensation in a long time because triumph invariably came all too easily. With no idea as to how much he'd finally bid for a kiss with Kate, and not in the slightest bit fazed, he stepped out of the shadows and strode forward to collect his prize. Not just the kiss he was now due, but so much more. And he would collectuntil he was sated and Kate Lancaster no longer exerted this mysterious pull over his every sense.
Kate simply didn't believe her eyes at first. It couldn't be. It just could not be Tiarnan Quinn striding powerfully through the seated awed crowd towards her, looking as dark and gorgeous as she'd ever seen him in a tuxedo. Her face flamed guiltily; he'd been inhabiting her dreams for weeksand a lot longer jeered a taunting voice, which she ignored. Only the previous night she'd woken shaken and very hot after a dream so erotic that she was sure it must be her rampant imagination conjuring him up now.