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The bronze god was naked.
Gloriously, eye-poppingly naked, every muscle flexing and bunching and glistening as he carried a tray laden with cocktails and champagne flutes through the crowd.
'You can close your jaw now, before it hits the floor.'
Starr Merriday blinked once, twice, the spell broken as she tore her reluctant gaze away from the waiter and frowned at her best friend Kit.
'It's your fault. You brought me to this den of iniquity.'
Kit wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, her chuckle positively wicked. 'Yeah, and you're loving every minute of it.'
'It does have its benefits.'
Starr's gaze strayed to the ripped waiter again, lingered on his pecs, the light smattering of dark hair across his broad chest, dipped to his navel, the arrowing of hair beneath it…
'Jeez, what does a girl have to do to get a drink in this place?'
Kit smirked. 'Bit hot under the collar?'
'More like hot all over,' she muttered, thankful the waiters were clothed from the waist down, beyond thankful Kit had chosen one of her entrepreneurial mother's infamous cocktail parties for her farewell.
Nothing like a roomful of semi-naked guys to get a girl's mind off the fact she was jobless, homeless and penniless.
'Don't look now, but I think he's checking me out.'
Kit's subtle head-jerk towards Mr Pecs had Starr darting a quick glance in his direction, just in time to see him stumble, the tray skating on his palms like a penguin on ice, sloshing cocktails everywhere, the bulk of them landing on the guy next to him.
Sympathy warred with mirth as she watched the waiter try to mop up the mess, the guy in the suit waving him away with a frown.
The cocktail-wearing recipient looked out of place, suited and buttoned-up in a roomful of semi-naked guys, and she grinned as he fiddled with the knot of his tie, straightening it, aiming for cool, despite having several mojitos and a magnum of champagne dumped on his Armani duds.
'Yeah, he was definitely checking me out. Just one look and the guy does that. Back soon, hun. Off to mingle—find me a less clumsy one.'
Kit headed for the bar—and a tempting conglomeration of buffed waiters—while Starr found her gaze drawn back to the suit.
She'd been too busy ogling the waiters to notice the other guys in the room, but now she had… Slick guys in suits weren't her thing, but there was something about this guy. The way he stood, tall, proud, indomitable, despite a cocktail-dousing, his class obvious, his imperious gaze scanning the crowd… clashing with hers.
Startled, she dropped her gaze, surprised by the lick of heat lapping her skin after their momentary eye-lock.
The smart thing to do would be to quickstep out of here. But considering the shambles her life was at the moment, she hadn't done the smart thing in ages.
Curious to see if her inexplicable reaction to the stranger had been a result of a testosterone overdose from being in this room too long, she slowly raised her gaze to his. The moment of impact was just as cataclysmic as the first time.
He arched an eyebrow, his dark eyes filled with questions she had no hope of answering, the sardonic twist of his mouth tempting her to march right over there and set him straight.
She wasn't interested.
His lips curved in a decadent smile, shattering that particular delusion.
Damn, she was a sucker.
The only reason she'd come tonight was to avoid mulling. She'd already done the pity party earlier that week, complete with crashing cymbals, tooting horns and a banner that had read 'Fallen Starr', reminding her of the utter mess she now faced, courtesy of one lousy decision.
She'd fallen for the wrong guy.
So what the hell was she doing, standing here, encouraging some serious eye contact flirtation with absolutely no intention of following through?
Sculling the rest of her drink, she headed for the glass-enclosed balcony fifty storeys above Sydney. Maybe some fresh air might give her a little perspective. Yeah, right, and a miracle might drop from the heavens too.
Leaving the jam-packed room, laden with expensive perfume and excessive testosterone, she stepped onto the balcony, grateful for its solitude, impressed by the view.
No doubt about it—Kit's mum knew how to throw top shindigs. Sydney came alive at night, shimmied and salsa-ed and samba-ed from dusk to dawn, and she loved it—loved every vibrant inch. As she watched a Manly ferry leave Circular Quay on a journey it made many times a day, the lights of the bustling city twinkling far beneath, the impact of leaving slammed into her hard, hurting despite the week she'd had to adjust.
Sydney was her past, Melbourne her future.
The deep voice washed over her, and she shivered despite the balmy summer evening as he stepped in front of her—so much more striking up close, so much more appealing, so much more everything.
She couldn't see the colour of his eyes, or read their expression out here in the shadows, but there was no mistaking the amusement lacing his smoother-than-velvet voice.
He'd followed her out here, was trying to get a rise out of her, and while her first instinct was to tell him where to go, she swallowed it.
She'd never been one to wallow, and while her life as she knew it had just been flushed down the toilet and discharged into Sydney Harbour, there was no time like the present to test her new male-immunity programme.
'Just needed some fresh air. What's your excuse?'
'Too many people back there—' he jerked his thumb towards the packed room '—and the only interesting ones are out here.'
'I like to think so.'
'Also terribly lame.'
He crooked his finger, and she inadvertently leaned forward.
'Care to help me improve my technique?'
'Nope. Not in the mood for meaningless small talk and pitiable one-liners.'
He laughed. 'How about a meaningful exchange?'
'Not interested, mister.'
She jabbed at his chest, realising her mistake a second too late as she connected with a hard wall of tempting male flesh.
His mouth twitched as she removed her finger tout de suite, the initial electricity zap from touching him fading into a residual tingle.
He didn't budge, didn't move a muscle even as she belatedly realised a big, strong, he-man like him would see her reluctance as a challenge.
'Doesn't mean I'm going to back down, though.'
She raised an eyebrow, surprised by his commanding tone. Who was this guy anyway?
'Look, unless you have a dream job in Melbourne's premier dance company to coerce me into listening to any more of your drivel, beat it.'
Her feistiness didn't deter him. He folded his arms, propped himself against the balcony railing, his expression intrigued.
'You need a job?'
Desperately. Dance companies in Sydney were out, so she'd booked a ticket to Melbourne, ready to audition her little tap shoes off in order to find a job—any job— and start rebuilding her life.
'I've got a vacancy.'
She screwed up her nose, her withering glare doing little to discourage him if his confident grin was any indication.
'Let me guess. Cleaner? Cook? Shoe-shiner?'
'Close. I'm after a Girl Friday.'
'Too bad I'm a weekend kind of gal.'
He leaned closer, heart-stoppingly closer, and as she submerged the urge to bury her face in that broad chest she took a steadying breath, only to be bombarded with an intoxicating blend of fresh limes, tequila and strawberries. Fruity and tart, a heavenly cocktail mix, shaken and stirred, and served by one hell of a guy.
'You always this brash?'
'You always this forward with someone you don't know?'
He held out his hand, leaving her no option but to take it, gritting her teeth against the insane surge of heat sizzling up her arm.
'Callum Cartwright. CEO of Cartwright Corporation. In desperate need of a temp PA 'til I find a long-term replacement.'
She slipped her hand from his, dropped it to her side, curled and uncurled her fingers several times to eradicate the residual tingling.
'Starr Merriday. Dancer, not PA.'
He slid a card from his top pocket, handed it to her.
'In case you change your mind.'
With an annoyed huff, she shook her head. 'You just don't give up, do you?'
'Not in my vocabulary.'
She toyed with the card, flipping it between her thumb and index finger, dying to glance at it but not wanting to give him the satisfaction.
'Let me guess. You're one of those demanding, controlling, determined bosses who won't take no for an answer.'
An odd expression she couldn't decipher creased his brow for a second before vanishing.
'You don't get to be the best by settling. For anything.'
Excitement rippled through her—whether from his drive, his power or his proximity, she had no idea.
'I'll keep that in mind.'
'Sure I can't tempt you?'
She could play it safe, give him a boring brush-off. But she was through playing it safe. Look where safe had got her for the last few years.
Uh-uh. Safe was for being the best at her job, staying loyal to one dance company for seven years, trusting her partner. And look where she'd landed anyway.
'That depends.' She leaned into his personal space, her reeling senses on overload. 'What's on offer?'
This close, she could see his eyes were dark—deliciously dark and enigmatic—though she didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out the mystery behind them right now.
He was turned on: pupils dilated, eyes wide, phero-mones creating a sensual cocoon around them.
The buzz she'd experienced when jabbing his chest had returned tenfold, multiplying and stultifying and defying her to take a risk.
'You don't want the job, so what do you want?'
She wanted to push the boundaries, to flirt, to feel feminine and desirable and wanted—all sadly lacking in her last relationship.
But was it worth inviting a potential one-night stand on her last night in Sydney?
For one drawn-out, exciting, tension-fraught moment, with Callum Cartwright staring into her eyes, she was sorely tempted.
Courting a potential business partner was the only reason Callum had attended another boring cocktail party tonight.
He'd made the requisite circle of the room, shaken hands, slapped backs, and had been counting down the minutes deemed polite enough before leaving when that klutz of a waiter had bumped into him.
He'd been less than impressed—until he'd locked eyes with the gorgeous blonde on the other side of the room, and suddenly his drenched shirt hadn't mattered, the evening had not been so mundane.
He was a firm believer in following instincts. His gut reaction had made him millions in the financial arena, where Cartwright Corporation ruled.
So when she'd fled, he'd followed.
She'd verbally retreated. He'd verbally sparred.
And he'd been getting somewhere too. Her flashing eyes and lush mouth had been at odds with her defensive body language… until this.
Fishing his vibrating mobile phone out of his pocket, he glanced at the caller ID and begged off the luscious blonde, asking her to wait for him as he headed for the far side of the balcony.
He never turned off his mobile phone—the height of rudeness, as his last PA had kept reminding him. But then she didn't run a corporation and control billions of dollars. The money market never slept, and neither did he these days.
He hadn't slept in a long time—not since the fateful night that had catapulted him into this business in the first place.
And that was why he had to take this call.
Not because it would make or break Cartwright Corporation, but because it was from the one person who understood exactly what had happened that night, and was still dealing with it in his own way.
Taking a deep breath, he stabbed the answer button. 'Rhys, how's it going?'
'Not bad, bro. You?'
'Same old. Where are you?'
'Japan for a few more days, then I head for the States.'
'You coming home eventually?'
A resounding no, as usual. While he'd thrown himself into the family business after the accident, Rhys had fled. Studying interstate, escaping overseas once his degree came through, avoiding Melbourne and everything being a Cartwright entailed.
Callum envied him.
He'd been like that once, a lifetime ago, when he'd been carefree and selfish and irresponsible.