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Alena had known she wanted himquite desperatelythe minute she'd seen him. That had been in the foyer of this London hotel earlier in the week. The fierce surge of previously unknown and unexpected sheer physical desire that had struck had been so powerful that it had almost literally knocked her off her feetand left her in no doubt as to its meaning or its urgency, shaking tremulously from head to foot and on fire with the force of her own desire.
He was, she suspected, everything that her elder half-brother Vasilii had so often warned her against in his own sex. He was dangerous; she knew thatany woman would know it, even if Vasilii tried to treat her as though she was still merely a girl and not a woman.
Alena sighed. She did genuinely and really love Vasilii, even if he was the most aggravatingly old-fashioned, moralistic and over-protective brother anyone could have. However, there was something about him which drew and compelled her beyond reason, beyond duty, beyond anything and everything she had ever known or expected to know. Had she been struck by love? Had she been struck by its darker sibling lust? Or perhaps a combination of both? Was it her passionate deep-running Russian blood that was responsible? Or was it a vulnerability to wickedly dangerous Russian men she had inherited from her English mother, who had fallen so swiftly in love with her own Russian father?
It didn't matter. What was happening to her was beyond the skills of analysis drilled in to her to fit its pupils for the modern age by the teachers at her all female and very strict school. Nothing mattered other than the gathering, growing rushing need that now owned her. His air of openly raw sexuality and her need to offer herself up to it, to be consumed by it, filled her senses, leaving no room for anything else. Just the thought of even breathing the same air as him was enough to send her dizzy with delight and to make her body react as erotically as though he was already touching it, caressing it, taking it and touching it, teaching it and her everything that it meant to be a woman.
Alena shuddered in mute acknowledgement of his mastery of her responses. Any minute now he would turn and see her, and recognise the effect he was having on her. Her heart gave a fierce bound of mingled anticipation and apprehension. Oh, yes, he was dangerousand she ached for it, hungered for it, craved it.
She might 'only' be nineteen, as Vasilii was so fond of reminding her, but she was more than old enough to know from the one tremulous, daring glance she had risked earlier in the week into those malachite-green eyesso matching in colour the awesome columns of malachite in St Petersburg's Winter Palaceexactly what the man now standing engaged in conversation with another Russian on the other side of the exclusive hotel's even more exclusive lounge lobby was. He was living, breathing, walking sexual dangerespecially to a woman like her. He lived outside convention and its rules.
Her pulse beating increasingly speedily, she studied him covertly and eagerly. He was tallas tall as Vasilii, who was six feet three to her own five feet nine. He was also slightly younger than Vasilii, she suspected. Perhaps in his early thirties, whereas Vasilii was now thirty-five. His thick hair was a rich tawny brown, reminding her of the colour of one of Vasilii's hunting jackets, although this man's hair was in need of a cut to bring it to the kind of order Vasilii favoured.
Everywhere in his faceits bone structure, its contours, its expressionthere were subtle traces of a heritage that said that this man came from a long line of men born to battle against other members of his own sex and to stand over their prone bodies when he had defeated them. He was pure alpha male, and a man determined to challenge anyone who questioned his right to that heritage.
His name was Kiryl Androvonov. She savoured it inside her head, unrolling it like a glittering magnificent carpet of delights for her senses. She had felt so adult, so strong and in control of her own fate, when she had asked the doorman so studiedly, mock-casually, if he knew who he was, pretending that she had recognised him as an acquaintance of her brother. The name Kiryl meant 'noble', but the doorman had told her only that he was a businessman and that this was his second visit to the hotel.
Kiryl hadn't intended to look for herthe slender, gazelle-like young woman with her silky fall of dark blonde hair and her silver-grey eyes that reminded him of sunlight on the frozen Neva river in winter, or the Russian fables of the rusilki, the fatal enchantresses who rose from their watery graves to lure men to join them. For one thing she wasn't his type, and for another he had far more important things on his mind than accepting the unspoken but implicit invitation she was giving him.
But he had looked, and she was there, in the same chair, at the same table, pouring tea from the steaming traditional samovar that the hotel indulged its Russian guests by providing.
She wasn't wearing a wedding ringnot that that meant anything these days. A high-priced hooker, then, dangling her bait? Maybe, but Kiryl doubted it. A hooker would have moved in on him before nowtime was, after all, money in any business.
She wanted him, though. He knew that. But he did not want her. Nor did he intend to allow himself to want her, even if that no doubt astronomically expensive soft silk top she was wearing was outlining the undeniably natural and highly desirable shape of her breasts with all the sensual mastery of a skilled artistic hand. The top, which covered her from her throat right down to her wrists, shouldn't have been sexy. Those impossibly small-for-male-fingers shimmering pearl buttons that closed the neckline all the way from her throat to her breastbone should not have filled him with a desire to wrest them from their closures and lay bare to his gaze and his touch the flesh that lay beneath thembut they did. The diamond stud earrings she was wearingif real, and he suspected that they werewould have cost whoever had given them to her many thousands of pounds. He knew that because his last mistress had tried to inveigle him into buying her a similar pair, just before he had decided that she no longer interested him.
As he assessed themand that was all he was assessingshe looked up and right at him, the colour coming and going in her face, dark lashes sweeping down over the silver-grey eyes which had gone from shining like the frozen Neva to burning with the glow of heated mercury or the desire of a very aroused woman. Unexpectedly his own body responded to that swift change from the winter ice of St Petersburg to the fierce summer heat of the Russian steppes, with all the passion that the land of his fathers always inspired in him, as fiercely as though she held within her the essence of all that heritage meant to him. He could feel within him the surge of his own desire to take and possess that heritage; to claim it and to refuse to yield it to anyone.
Caught off-guard by the surge of electric male arousal gripping him, Kiryl recognised that the woman, whoever she was, was causing his attention to wander from something far more important than some left-over youth fantasy about possessing a woman who would somehow be a magical link between himself and his Russian heritage, earthing him in his right to it.
'And, as I was saying, Vasilii Demidov will be your main stumbling block to winning the contract.'
Kiryl stiffened and focused his attention on the agent he had hired to help him win the contract he was determined to have for his business. The knowledge that one of Russia's richest men was also a contender for the contract had not put him off. Far from it. It had merely sharpened his desire to win it.
'Demidov has not previously shown any interest in the shipping or container industry. His business interests lie mainly in owning and controlling the port side of the business,' Kiryl pointed out. 'Therefore he has no reason to have any interest in the contract.'
'He hadn't, but he is currently in China, finalising another contract, and as part of the bargain the Chinese want a controlling interest in a container shipping line. He is in a position to undercut any price you may offer, even if that means acquiring the contract at an initial loss. I have it on the very best authority that the selection process for the contract is now down to the two of you, with the dice loaded very heavily in his favour. I'm afraid that I must warn you that with Demidov as your competition you cannot win.'
Kiryl gave his agent a hard look.
'I refuse to accept that.'
He could not and would not lose this contract. It was the final building block, the final piece in the chess game of his business life, that would establish his supremacy in his chosen fieldnot just in his own eyes but in the eyes of Russia itself. No one could be allowed to stop him from achieving that goal. No one. He had worked too hard and too long to let that happen.
Inside his head an image formed: a man's profile, his eyes hard and denying, rejecting the child he had been. His father. The father who had denied him not just the right to his name but also the right to his Russian blood. Just as Vasilii Demidov would if he now denied him the right to complete the end game he had striven for so long.
'Then you must hope for a miraclebecause that is what it will take for you to beat Demidov and win this contract.'
Typically Kiryl did not allow any of what he was feeling to show in his demeanour or his voice, simply saying, in a voice as relentlessly cold as winter, 'There must be something that would make him back offsome way of undermining him. A man does not make the money he has made without having secrets in his past he would not want exposed.'
The agent inclined his greying head in acknowledgement of Kiryl's statement before warning him, 'You are not the first man to look for some weakness in Demidov that can be exploited, but there isn't one. He is armour plated. He has no vulnerability, no known past sins to catch up with him, and no present vices to use against him. He is impregnable.'
Kiryl's mouth hardened.
'He is impressive, I agree. But no man is impregnable. There will be a way, a vulnerabilityand I promise you this: I will find it, and I will use and exploit it.'
The agent remained silent. He knew better than to argue with the man facing him. Kiryl had grown to his wealth and his present position of authority and power through the hardest and most challenging of circum-stancesand it showed.
Nevertheless, he felt obliged to remind him as they parted, 'As I have already said, what you require if you are to win out against Demidov is a miracle. Take my advice and back out nowlet him have the contract. That way at least you will save face and not have to endure the humiliation of publicly losing to him.'
Back out? When he was so close to fulfilling the vow he had made to himself so many years ago? Never.