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The fashionable Auckland restaurant reeked of it, along with Chanel, the fruitiness of Chianti and mouthwatering stonegrilled meats so calorie–loaded Kate Brogan tried not to inhale too deeply. She was saving herself for the tiramisu.
Glancing at her watch, she saw that Lucy was late, as usual. Kate drained her water glass and caught the eye of the waiter hovering on the edge of the terraced courtyard, ostensibly enjoying the sunshine between duties, but plainly checking out his female patrons.
"Signorina?" Despite the fact that his taste clearly ran to full–breasted blondes, he was all politeness.
Kate smiled, her amusement growing as she watched him up her babe rating. "Antipasto for two and the dessert menu, please." Lucy might have the afternoon to play, but Kate had a deadline to meet.
While she waited, she scanned the place for diversion. This overpriced restaurant, its patrons a self–conscious mix of chic wives and corporate raiders, had always been a good hunting ground for her weekly newspaper column.
Across the courtyard a jacaranda daubed the diners in patches of sunshine and shade, while bright–eyed sparrows perched in its branches, quicker than the waiters to clear an empty table.
To her left an overripe politician devoured a much younger woman with his eyes, while his fat, moist hands stroked her upturned palms. Recognizing Kate, he froze.
She raised her glass to him, and Diggory scowled. Eighteen months earlier he'd lost his ministerial portfolio after investigations proved his taxpayer–funded business trips had doubled as dalliances with hispersonal assistant. Investigations sparked by one of Kate's newspaper columns, "More Bang(ing) for Your Tax Buck?"
To her surprise, he got up and came over. "You're back."
"And nothing's changed," she said dryly. "You can't be faithful to your mistress, let alone your wife."
"Margo left me," he retorted. "I can date whom I like. Since you've been overseas, I presume you missed my good news." He smiled, revealing smoker's teeth. "I was reelected last week." Kate sat back, stunned, and his smirk broadened. "Don't you want to congratulate me?"
"How did you rig that?"
Diggory's expression hardened but his tone remained pleasant. "A little breastbeating…public involvement with good causes…. People love a reformed sinner. I won by a landslide. What does that tell you?"
Her tone was equally pleasant. "That cockroaches have more lives than cats."
Diggory stopped smiling. "Now who's being a poor loser?" He leaned so close, she could smell the garlic on his breath. "It tells you, missy, that you don't get the last word."
"Your wife left you, didn't she?"
For a moment Kate saw violence in his eyes, then Diggory shrugged and stepped back. "I recommend the humble pie."
He left and, under the table, Kate unclenched her fists. Her hands trembled slightly and she frowned, not wanting to give him another victory. he'd still be sitting on the backbenches for the rest of his parliamentary career. But she drummed her fingers on her knees in frustration.
As she brooded, her gaze fell on a mismatched couple across the courtyard. The woman, whose iron–gray hair was cropped short, addressed her younger male companion in a manner as crisp as the white blouse under her navy power suit.
Jordan King. His size, looks and silky blond hair, which fell extravagantly past his very broad shoulders, would have distinguished him in any crowd. But in this conservative stronghold he looked like a peacock among pigeons. Sprawling on a chair that seemed too small to hold him, in his well–worn suede jacket and faded denim shirt, conspicuously in need of an iron.
His powerful fingers toyed with the delicate filigree ironwork of an adjacent chair, the softness of his hair at odds with his profile—all strong lines and clean angles. Despite the fair hair, his skin was tanned the translucent brown of wild honey.
By rights Jordan King should be gay. The tabloids made it very plain he was not. He was also the only person in the history of Kate's influential column to turn down a personal profile. She could have accepted it if the tourism entrepreneur's refusal hadn't been so blunt. When she'd pressed, he'd said; "I wouldn't be comfortable doing the touchy–feely stuff."
Then he'd added insult to injury by asking her for a date.
"I wouldn't be comfortable doing the touchy–feely stuff," she'd retorted.
he'd laughed. "This is exactly why I don't give interviews…my comments are always taken out of context."
Six months later a bouquet of roses had arrived with Jordan's number and a note: "If you change your mind." As if.
Still, there was a slight smile on her lips when Jordan turned his head and recognized her. He smiled, too, eyes the blue of arctic ice sweeping over her, insolent in their frank appraisal. Kate frowned and crossed her arms, before realizing that only accentuated her cleavage under the open–necked green shirt.
His gaze lifted to meet hers and his message was direct, sexy and very explicit.
Hot color flooded her cheeks. He thought she'd been trying to pick him up, and his answer was definitely yes. She straightened and shot back a glacial look.
He shrugged, utterly arrogant, and turned back to his companion. The woman shook her head, said something.
Jordan responded with a wolfish grin, then glanced again at Kate, mouthing, "Coward." Adjusting his chair, he turned away and casually resumed his conversation.
Her mouth fell open. Picking up a linen napkin, she crumpled it tightly. No one should be so…so raw. There was no other word for it. He was blatant in his looks, in his invitation and in his dismissal.
"Get a haircut," she growled, and felt much better.
Tray in hand, her waiter approached, swerving sharply to avoid a collision with the slim brunette in a scarlet dress who was also intent on reaching the table.
Lucy sank into the chair opposite Kate. "Sorry I'm late." She peeled tendrils of long dark hair back from her overheated face. "She ordered for me, didn't she?" At the waiter's nod, she turned to Kate. "I was stuck in another postproduction meeting." A researcher for television news, Lucy often fed Kate leads the state broadcaster turned down as too hot.
"Don't worry, I filled in the time people watching." The waiter started unloading the tray and Kate reached for a sun–dried tomato. "Jordan King caught me staring and thought I was trying to pick him up."
"He's here? You're kidding me." Lucy swung around in her chair, then turned back, incredulous. "If I'd done what he's done, I'd go bush for a few weeks—or wherever he hides out when he's not empire building."
Obviously intrigued, the waiter busied himself with removing the extra cutlery.
"What did I miss?" Kate offered Lucy the focaccia, then took a slice herself. Jordan King built Triton Holdings from a small river–rafting company started with two university friends into a huge tourism conglomerate. Kate's boyfriend, Peter Walker, was contracted to develop accountancy software for Triton, but rarely mentioned King.
Lucy's silver bracelets jingled as she leaned forward, and Kate looked pointedly at the waiter, who had dropped any pretense of table clearing. He left reluctantly.
"He was caught in bed with a married woman…by her husband," Lucy said in a hushed voice. "Six months later, the couple is in the middle of a divorce and hubby has gone to the media, giving all the salacious details. He's bent on revenge, I'm guessing because he lost out on full custody."
The bread stuck in Kate's throat. She washed it down with a sip of water, aware of a strange disappointment. She didn't like King, after all. "Those poor kids," she said.
The two friends ate in a thoughtful silence.
"Wait a minute." Kate paused with an olive halfway to her mouth. "Isn't Jordan involved in setting up a holiday camp for children from broken homes?"