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Demyan slid the black-rimmed nonprescription glasses on before pushing open the door to the lab building. The glasses had been his uncle's idea, along with the gray Armani cardigan Demyan wore over his untucked dress shirtno tie. The jeans he wore to complete the "geeky corporate guy" attire were his own idea and surprisingly comfortable.
He'd never owned a pair. He'd had the need to set the right example for his younger cousin, Crown Prince to Volyarus, drummed into Demyan from his earliest memory.
He'd done his best, but they were two very different men.
Maksim was a corporate shark, but he was also an adept politician. Demyan left politics to the diplomats.
For now, though, he would tone down his fierce personality with clothes and a demeanor that would not send his prey running.
He knocked perfunctorily on the door before entering the lab where Chanel Tanner worked. The room was empty but for the single woman working through her lunch hour as usual, according to his investigator's report.
Sitting at a computer in the far corner, she typed in quick bursts between reading one of the many volumes spread open on the cluttered desktop.
"Hello." He pitched his voice low, not wanting to startle her.
No need to worry on that score. She simply waved her hand toward him, not even bothering to turn around. "Leave it on the bench by the door."
"Leave what, precisely?" he asked, amused in spite of himself by her demeanor.
"The package. Do you really need to know what's in it? No one else ever asks," she grumbled as she scribbled something down.
"I do not have a package. What I do have is an appointment."
Her head snapped up, red curly hair flying as she spun her chair to face him. "What? Who? You're Mr. Zaretsky?"
He nodded, impressed by the perfect pronunciation of his name.
"You aren't expected for another half an hour." She jumped to her feet, the pocket of her lab coat catching the edge of a book and knocking it to the floor. "And you're going to be late. Corporate types interested in funding our research always are."
"And yet I am early." He crossed the room and picked up the book to hand to her.
Taking it, she frowned, her small nose scrunching rather charmingly. "I noticed."
Pink stained her cheeks, almost washing out the light dusting of freckles. "I thought you were the delivery guy. He flirts. I don't like it, so I ignore him if at all possible."
The woman was twenty-nine years old and could count the number of dates she'd had in the past year on less than the fingers of one hand. Demyan would think she might welcome flirting.
He did not say that, of course. He gave her the smile he used on women he wanted to bed. "You have no filter, do you?"
"Are you flirting with me?" she demanded, her gray eyes widening in shock.
"I might be." Awkward and this woman were on very friendly speaking terms.
Her brows furrowed and she looked at him with evident confusion. "But why?"
"I'm hospitably inept, not desperate."
"You believe you are inept?"
"Everyone believes I'm socially awkward, particularly my family. Since not one of them has trouble making friends and maintaining a busy social life, I bow to their superior knowledge in the area."
"I think you are charming." Demyan shocked himself with the knowledge that he spoke the truth.
An even bigger but not unwelcome surprise was that he found the geeky scientist unexpectedly attractive. She wasn't his usual cover model companion, but he would like very much if she would take off her lab coat and give him the opportunity to see her full figure.
"Some people do at first, but it wears off." She sighed, looked dejected for a few short seconds before squaring her shoulders and setting her features into an expression no doubt meant to hide her thoughts. "It's all right. I'm used to it. I have my work and that's what is really important."
He'd learned that about her, along with a great deal else from the investigation he'd had performed on top of the dossier his uncle had provided. "You're passionate about your research."
"Yes, it is. That is why I am here."
The smile she bestowed on him was brilliant, her gray eyes lighting to silver. "It is. You're going to make it possible for us to extend the parameters of our current study."
"That is the plan." He'd determined that approaching her in the guise of a corporate investor was the quickest way to gain Chanel's favor.
He'd obviously been right.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"I thought we'd been over that."
"Most corporations donate without sending someone to check our facility over."
"Are you offended Yurkovich Tanner did not opt to do so?"
"No, just confused."
"How will you know if this is a good setup or not? I mean, even the most fly-by-night operation can make their lab look impressive to a layman."
"The University of Washington is hardly a fly-by-night operation."
"No, I know, but you know what I mean."
"You really have no filter, do you?"
"You as good as called me stupid."
"No." She shook her head for emphasis. "The implication is there."
"No, it's not. No more than I consider myself stupid because I could stare at my car's engine from dawn to dusk and still not be able to tell you where the catalytic converter is."
"It's under the engine."
"Point taken, but you knew your car exhaust system has one. Just as I know the rudimentary facts about lab research."
"I know about the catalytic converter because my mother's was stolen once. I guess it's a thing for young thugs to steal them and sell them for the precious metal. Mom was livid."
"As she had a right to be."
"I suppose, but getting a concealed weapons permit and storing a handgun in her Navigator's glove box was taking it about sixty million steps too far. It wasn't as if she was in the car when they stole the thing."
Demyan felt his lips twitching, the amusement rolling through him an unusual but not unwelcome reaction. "I am sure you are right."
"Is English your second language?"
"It is." But people rarely realized that. "I do not speak with an accent."
"You don't use a ton of contractions either."
"I prefer precise communication."
Her storm-cloud gaze narrowed in thought. "You're from Volyarus, aren't you?"
He felt his eyes widen in surprise. "Yes."
"Don't look so shocked. My great-great-grandfather helped discover the oil fields of Volyarus. Did you really think I wouldn't know that the Seattle office of Yurkovich Tanner is just a satellite? They paid for my university education. It was probably some long-ago agreement with Bartholomew Tanner."
She was a lot closer than was comfortable to the truth. "He was bequeathed the title of baron, which would make you a lady."
"I know that, but my mom doesn't." And from Chanel's tone, she didn't want the older woman finding out. "Besides, the title would only pass to me if I were direct in line with no older sibling."
"Do you have one?" he asked, knowing the answer but following the script of a stranger.
"So you are Dame Tanner, Lady Chanel, if you prefer."
Her lovely pink lips twisted with clear distaste. "I prefer just Chanel."
"Your mother is French?" he asked, continuing the script he'd carefully thought out beforehand.
Demyan was always fully prepared.
"No. She loves the Chanel label, though."
"She named you after a designer brand?" His investigators had not revealed that fact.
"It's no different than a parent naming their child Mercedes, or something," Chanel replied defensively.
"She named me more aptly than she knew."
"Why do you say that?" he asked with genuine surprise and curiosity.
He would have thought it was the opposite.
"Mom loves her designers, but what she never realized was that Coco Chanel started her brand because she believed in casual elegance. She wore slacks when women simply did not. She believed beauty should be both effortless and comfortable."
"Oh, yes. Mom is more of the 'beauty is pain' school of thought. She wishes I were, too, but well, you can see I'm not." Chanel indicated her lab coat over a simple pair of khaki slacks and a blue T-shirt.
The T-shirt might not be high fashion, but it clung to Chanel's figure in a way that revealed her unexpectedly generous curves. She wasn't overweight, but she wasn't rail thin either, and if her breasts were less than a C cup, he'd be surprised.
That information had not been in her dossier, either. "You're staring at my breasts."
"Okay." She sighed. "I'm not offended, but I'm not used to it. My lab coat isn't exactly revealing and the men around here, well, they stare at my data more than me."
"If you say so."
"You're flirting again."
"Are you going to try to ignore me like the delivery man?"
"Am I going to see you again to ignore you?"
"Oh, you will definitely see me again."
As hard as Chanel found it to believe, the gorgeous corporate guy had meant exactly what he said. And not in a business capacity.
He wanted to see her again. She hadn't given him her number, but he'd called to invite her to dinner. Which meant he'd gone to the effort to get it. Strange.
And sort of flattering.
Then he'd taken her to an independent film she'd mentioned wanting to see.
Chanel didn't date. She was too awkward, her filters tuned wrong for normal conversation. Even other scientists found her wearing in a social setting.
Only, Demyan didn't seem to care. He never got annoyed with her.
He didn't get offended when she said something she shouldn't have. He didn't shush her in front of others, or try to cut off her curious questioning of their waiter on his reasoning behind recommending certain meals over others.
It was so different than being out with her family that Chanel found her own awareness of her personal failings diminishing with each hour she spent in Demyan's company.
She'd never laughed so much in the company of another person who wasn't a scientist. Had never felt so comfortable in a social setting with anyone.
Tonight they were going to a dinner lecture: Symmetry Relationships and the Theory of Point and Space Groups. She'd been wanting to hear this particular visiting lecturer from MIT for a while, but the outing had not been her idea.
Demyan had secured hard-to-come-by tickets for the exclusive gathering and invited her.
She'd been only too happy to accept, and not just because of the lecture. If he'd invited her to one of the charity galas her mother enjoyed so much, Chanel would have said yes, too.
In Demyan's company, even she might have a good time at one of those.
Standing in front of the full-length mirror her mother had insisted Chanel needed as part of her bedroom decor, she surveyed her image critically.
Chanel didn't love designer fashion and rarely dressed up, but no way could she have been raised by her mother and not know how to put the glad rags on.
Tonight, she'd gone to a little more effort than on her previous two dates with Demyan. Chanel had felt the first two outings were flukes, anomalies in her life she refused to allow herself to get too excited over.
After all, he would get that glazed look at some point during the evening and then not call again. Everyone did. Only, Demyan hadn't and he hadcalled, that is.
And maybe, just maybe, she and the corporate geek had a chance at something more than the connection of two bouncing protons.
He understood what she was talking about and spoke in a language she got. Not like most people. It was the most amazing thing.
And she wanted him. Maybe it was being twenty-nine or something, but her body overheated in his presence big-time.
She'd decided that even if their relationship didn't have a future, she wanted it to have everything she could get out of it in the present.
Both her mother and stepfather had made it clear they thought Chanel's chance of finding a lifelong love were about as good as her department getting better funding than the Huskies football program.
Deep inside, Chanel was sure they were right. She was too much like her fatherand hadn't Beatrice said she'd married him only because she was pregnant with Chanel?
Chanel wasn't trapping anyone into marriage, but she wouldn't mind tripping Demyan into her too-empty bed.
With that in mind, she'd pulled out the stops when dressing for their dinner tonight. Her dress was a hand-me-down Vera Wang from her mother.
It hadn't looked right on the more petite woman's figure, but the green silk was surprisingly flattering to Chanel's five feet seven inches.
The bodice clung to her somewhat generous breasts, while the draping accentuated her waist and the line of her long legs.
It wasn't slutty by any stretch, but it was sexy in a subtle way she trusted Demyan to pick up on. She would usually have worn it with sensible pumps that didn't add more than an inch to her height.
But not tonight. Demyan was nearly six-and-a-half feet tall; he could deal more than adequately with a companion in three-inch heels.
Chanel had practiced wearing them on and off all day in the lab.
Her colleagues asked if she was doing research for a physics experiment. She'd ignored their teasing and curiosity for the chance to be certain of her ability to walk confidently in the heels.
And she'd discovered it was like riding a bike. Her body remembered the lessons her mom had insisted on in Chanel's younger years.
The doorbell rang and she rushed to answer it.
Demyan stood on the other side, his suit a step up from his usual attire on their dates, too.
He adjusted his glasses endearingly and smiled, his mahogany gaze warm on her. "You look beautiful."
Her hand went to the crazy red curls she rarely did much to tame. Tonight she'd used the full regimen of products her mother had given her on her last birthday, along with a lecture about not getting any younger and looking like a rag doll in public. "Thank you."
"Do we have time for a drink before we leave for the dinner?" he asked, even as he herded her back into the small apartment and closed the door behind him.
"Yes, of course." Heat climbed up her neck. "I don't keep alcohol on hand, though."
The look in his eyes could only be described as predatory, but his words were innocuous enough. "Soda will do."
"Iced green tea?" she asked, feeling foolish.
Her mother often complained about the food and drink Chanel kept on hand, using her inadequacies as a hostess to justify the infrequent motherly visits.
Demyan's eyes narrowed as if he could read Chanel's thoughts. "Iced tea is fine."
"It's green tea," she reiterated. Why hadn't she at least bought soda, or something? "Green tea is healthy."
"Lots of antioxidants," she agreed. "I drink it all the time."
He didn't ask if the caffeine kept her up, but then the man drank coffee with his meals and had gotten a large-size fully caffeinated Coca-Cola at the movie.
"I keep both caffeinated and decaf on hand," she offered anyway.
"I'll take the caffeine. I have a feeling we'll be up late tonight." The look he gave her was hot enough to melt magma.
Suddenly, it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of her apartment's cheerfully decorated living room. "I'll just get our tea."
He moved, his hand landing on her bare arm. "Don't run from me."
"I'm not." How could two simple words come out sounding so breathless?
His hand slid up her arm and over and down again, each inch of travel leaving bursts of sensation along every nerve ending in its wake, landing proprietarily against the small of her back. "I like this dress."
"Thank you." Somehow she was getting closer to him, her feet moving of their own volition, no formed thought in her brain directing them.