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Provocative, Powerful, Pulsating Therin Rucker thought he'd puke after reading the program and finding it riddled by a slew of Ps boasting of pianist Kianti Lawrence. He supposed the creators of the gold-edged publication thought it was all in good promoting. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Perhaps it was simply the current state of his mood that lent to his opinion of the accolades aimed at the woman on the stage. Over the course of the last twenty minutes, however, his negative opinions had changed.
Fist propped to chin, Therin could feel his gaze narrowing as it focused more intently upon the gleaming hardwood stage set beneath the soft gold lighting. Uncontrolled, a low sound rose from his throat. Therin was aware that the sound was one of appreciation.
Whether that appreciation was in reference to the woman's exquisite talent or her exquisite looks was something Therin refused to dwell on even for a moment.
Vaughn Burgess thought differently and slanted his best friend a glance while a smirk crinkled his gaze. Therin's set expression was easy to readfor Vaughn, anyway. He'd seen the look often enough to know Therin was captivatednot so much by the music as by the woman performing it.
Therin switched his stance, propping his chin against the opposite fist. His crystalline hazel stare lost none of its intensity.
The charity concert for the Pacific Northwest political organization EYESEducate Youth Encourage Successwas for a worthy cause and one close to Therin's heart. However, he'd have much preferred diving right into the heart of the matter at hand instead of sitting through a piano recital. That was before he took his seat and had his attention and other things captivated by the lovely artist in his midst.
The performance was nearing its conclusion. After the final stanza was complete, Therin lent his attention to the room. Despite the unexpected musical treat, he knew his evening wouldn't end on a high note.
It was wildly rumored that the money funneled into the EYES organization could claim standing in the high nine figures. EYES was certainly a force to be reckoned with and it made good on its promises. While the EYES organization held the noblest intentions, there were those who would have preferred its influential members spend their time and considerable wealth on other endeavors.
The applause was deafening in the Hotel Currey's concert hall. There were even chants for an encore. Kianti Lawrence laughed vibrantly while raising her hands to wave off the requests.
Therin didn't leave his seat right away. Tugging at the crisp white cuffs peeking out from his tuxedo jacket sleeve, he merely observed the scene. The smile on his face then was more rueful than amused. If only the crowd there could come together in agreement over situations more prevalent .
No, the evening would not end on a high note. Many in that room held similar opinions on the way he spent his time, money and resources. They thought it out of place for the young American ex-ambassador to Canada to hold such a topic as education as his passion. Therin's dedication and his almost magical ability to sway influential friends to dedicate themselves toward the same purpose had earned him an almost equal number of enemies.
Kianti gave one last low curtsy and prayed that her legs wouldn't give out from beneath her. Silently, she sent up other prayers of thanks that the audience couldn't see her legs shaking beneath the floor-length hemline of her gown. She left the group with her customary double wave and almost sprinted from the stage.
She kept the smile pasted to her mouth until all other smiling faces were left behind. She only needed a momentjust a momentto get herself together. Brody would have a pill down her throat fast if she didn't make herself scarce. She didn't need that. She never wanted to need that again.
"I need to go." Therin said the words almost to himself.
Vaughn heard him clearly. "'Bout damn time you get your mind on somethin' other than work."
Therin shrugged and refused to make eye contact with his friend. "Calm down, V, just goin' to the john."
The guys stood in unison. Therin couldn't maintain the pretense for long and grinned at Vaughn's knowing glare. His stare had softened, although his light eyes began to scan the noisy room.
"Keep 'em off my back for five minutes, V." He shook hands with Vaughn and moved on.
Kianti shivered, and not from the backstage breeze that kissed her shoulder through the black lacy sleeves of her gown. In her world, there were only small windows of chance to happen upon unclaimed spaces at concert halls. During the last seven years of her professional career, she'd been blessed to catch those "windows" open after almost every performance.
As the audience conversed among themselves shuffling from their seats and remarking on the talent they'd just witnessed and how it compared to others Kianti sought that time to collect herself and to catch her breath.
She never wanted to need that again
Therin cursed Vaughn below his breath, but realized, in all fairness, the man was probably elsewhere working to give him his requested "five minutes." Unfortunately, his chief of staff couldn't be everywhere at once, Therin grudgingly admitted. He worked up a fake smile for the group of Capitol Hill policymakers who waited along his path.
"Heard it through the grapevine Therinyou're thinking of arranging a week-long retreat at your Vancouver place," Jonas Dessin commented once the group made quick work of handshakes and small talk. "Rumor has it, it's another EYES fundraiser."
Therin laughed, clapping Jonas's arm. "Does your grapevine have any idea what EYES's bottom line is? Last thing they need is another fundraiser."
"Grapevine also says it's a membership drive," Susan Brunschwig noted once the laughter had settled over Therin's last comment.
He shrugged, his demeanor cool in the face of the subtle yet pointed inquiries. It wasn't difficult. He'd been playing politics since he was four.
Stepping closer to Susan, Therin kept his smile light even as hers broadened and the stiff set to her body softened. "Education is in a precarious state." He spared the woman's colleagues a fleeting glance but directed his remark to her. "It was in an even worse condition before EYES came on the scene. We have a damn hard battle to fight. The kids we're fighting for will need every able body we can find to take on this battle. So yes, Susan, membership is always in need. Good night all." He bid smoothly and walked on.
Jonas Dessin turned to follow Therin's exit. "There goes a dangerous young man."
Susan kept her eyes on Therin heading deeper into the crowd. "Why dangerous, Jonas?"
"That kind of money going toward education? Are you kidding me?" Jonas's eyes crinkled at the corners.
"It may not be so far-fetched."
"That's truehence the young man being a danger. He's rattling folks that would have the big amounts he woos from his members go toward other endeavors endeavors far removed from education. EYES boasts a powerful and prominent membership list and every one of those members loves that young man. Those unsympathetic to his cause are threatened by that." Jonas took a breather from his diatribe and helped himself to a drink off the tray of a passing waiter. "Like I said, there goes a dangerous young man."
The serene backstage moment lasted longer than Kianti dared to hope it would. She even had time to kick up her heels. Literally. She'd pulled a chair closer to the one she occupied and propped up her feet. May as well make the most of it, she thought. Any minute the vultures would descend.
Kianti felt a smile emerge and quietly chastised herself. She loved her career and the madness that often came with it. Though there were varied aspects she could have done without, the greatest share of it had been a blessing.
Those who loved and followed her work had grown into a staggering number in the seven years since the start of her career. She was still in awe of it. She'd always been modest about her talents, even as a child, when she started playing the tune her mother hummed while preparing dinner one evening. It was a crude rendition of the melody banged out on Kianti's pink toy piano, but it was enough to give her parents pause.
Not long after, the then four-year-old Kianti learned the word "prodigy." Her parents and all the new teachers they brought in were talking about her when they said it. Those days had long passed, but even now she found it difficult to believe how taken aback people were when they discovered what she could do with a piano.
To herself, she would admit to succumbing to a bit of smugness over it. The more awestruck people were, the more she was allowed to do what she loved. In spite of the fact that she put her life at stake every time she did it.
Therin found her in a remote corner backstage. He sighed. It was not until then that he realized he'd been holding his breath. She'd been taking deep breaths as well, he noted, appreciating the fact that her eyes were closed. His presence was not yet noticed. No doubt she'd be unnerved and rightly agitated finding some stranger intruding on her private moment.
Her music was enchanting, but he wouldn't lie that it was more than her talent that had him rushing backstage to find her. Part of him wondered if it was all about her looks, either. After all, he'd been seated too far away to focus in on every nuance of her very lovely face. He wasn't surprised to find her as captivating at a distance as she was once that distance was closed.
Cinnamon-brown and fine-boned, she appeared dolllike and far too fragile to pound out the driving rhythms
that she gave less than an hour ago. Her eyes appeared to tilt at the corners and he wondered at their color, but didn't want her opening her eyes just yet. He needed more time to observe, and it was then that he recognized what he was seeking when he disappeared backstage to find her.
There was calm, a serenity that he'd swear was almost visible. It followed her and he wanted it or.at least a moment to enjoy whatever part of it she might unknowingly share.
He watched as she reached up to finger the glittering band that held her coarse dark hair away from her face. She opened her eyes then and looked right at him as if she'd been aware of his presence all along. Along with the cool expectancy in her bottomless dark stare, there was also the hint of curiosity.
His first words sparked a smile and a slight indentation along her left cheek that hinted at a dimple. "What for?" she asked.
Therin took a moment, long brows rising slightly as he regarded his answer. He'd known the reason for the apology but when she asked, his mind went completely blank. What the hell was wrong with him? He prayed she hadn't detected the frown he was trying to hide.
Kianti tilted her head and observed him. A lost tourist, perhaps? She'd detected a chord in the two words he'd spoken. Something old-world or, at the very least, regal, clung to his tone.
"I wanted to compliment your playing," he said after a quick swallow and clearing of his throat. "Phenomenal." He grimaced over the word choice.
Her nod was barely there, yet her smile was genuine. "Thank you."
Therin risked a glance down the narrow corridor leading back toward the main stage. Hands hidden in the deep pockets of his black pants, he moved closer to where she lounged.
"The pamphlet they're passing around mentioned that you play by ear."
"It's true." She shrugged. "If I had a piano near, you could hum a tune and I'd prove it."
Laughter rumbled easy and soft between them.
"Therin Rucker." He extended one of the hidden hands he'd pulled from his pocket.
She accepted the shake. "Kianti Lawrence."
His sleek brows rose again. "Like the wine?"
"Not quite." She grinned. "Pronounced the same, but spelled differently. Many people tell me I'm much harder to take than the wine."
The sound of voices growing nearer intruded on their second round of laughter. Kianti promptly eased her hand out of Therin's grasp.
"Here she is, y'all!"
Kianti gave a short laugh as she often did when Cube David's voice reached her ears. However, she'd hoped for just a few more moments with the mysterious music lover who'd just introduced himself.
Unfortunately, the three men following Cube made their presence known all too soon. Thankfully, they stifled any questions when they discovered her with "company."
"Therin Rucker, Cube Davidmy bodyguard." She made the introductions, still seated with her feet up.
"Winton Terrymy business manager. Khan Choi is my stylist and this is Brody Parker myuhcook."
Someone snickered and Brody's mouth tightened.
Kianti didn't attempt to hide her surprise or confusion when all four of her associates approached Therin for handshakes. They all grinned broadly and addressed her mysterious "music lover" as Mr. Ambassador, which roused a curious frown between her brows. She watched Therin chuckle as he engaged in light conversation with the guys.
She used the time to more closely observe him. She'd been trying like the devil not to gawk when she'd opened her eyes and found him standing there. Leanly muscular and quite tall, she doubted even the chic pumps she wore would prevent her from having to look up into his face. And what a face it was, every square inch of it drenched in a flawless cinnamon-brown. Then there were the long sideburns, which added a dangerous but nonetheless provocative appeal to his features. His hair was cut close and lay in waves of silky black over his head. She could have lost herself in the crystal appearance of his hazel gaze deep set beneath long, heavy brows.
"Well, we appreciate you attending tonight," Khan was saying as the conversation began to taper off.
Winton chuckled. "Yeah, even if you are here to conduct top-secret political business."
Contagious male laughter rumbled once more.
"Not so top secret," Therin admitted while pressing a thumb to his eye to remove a laugh tear. "Anyway, I'm glad I attended, too." His shimmering gaze focused on Kianti then. "Ms. Lawrence's music is quite powerful.
It was nice meeting you." His tone grew softer as he reached out to shake hands with the guys and say goodnight.
Alone with Kianti, the guys pulled chairs close. Brody claimed the closest spot and took her wrist for a pulse check.
"We leave you alone for a second and here you are meeting with royalty," Khan noted while fluffing out her hair.
Kianti's gaze and attention was still on the path Therin Rucker had taken when he made his exit.