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EVE sat in the wide, soft leather aeroplane seat, legs slanted gracefully to one side, flicking unseeingly through a copy of Vogue. There was only one other passenger in the private jet winging its way south over France towards the Côte d'Azur. Across the aisle her father was working through papers, a frown on his face, his jaw clamped tight.
His mood was grim, Eve knew. It had been growing grimmer ever since the takeover bid byAC International had been launched. At first her father had been contemptuous, sneering, but as one shareholder after another had started to look favourably on the bid, or succumb to the lure of the premium price AC International was offering for Hawkwood shares, his reaction had changed.
The takeover bid had become a battle. A battle her father was now taking to the man who had the audacity to try and wrest his company from him.
"When I come face to face with him it's got to look like nothing more than a coincidence," he'd barked at Eve. "If you're with me it will just look like a social occasion."
It was a familiar role for Eve to be required to play. The socially poised daughter, the charming guest, the gracious host-ess—whenever her father required youthful but respectable female company. Eve's eyes hardened. The times when far from respectable females had been at her father's side were plentiful. She could still remember the shock and disgust she'd felt when she'd turned up unexpectedly at her father's Mayfair apartment once, as a student, to find a party in full swing. Except the word 'party' didn't even begin to describe it.
Naked and half-naked girls had lolled about the apartment, many of whom clearly there for the purpose of 'sexual entertain-ment'—if that was the polite term for what was going on—and a blue movie flickering in the background on a huge plasma screen.
Since then she'd had no illusions about what her father did to amuse himself when he wasn't increasing his wealth and being a complete s.o.b. to everyone around him. And he certainly wasn't the only one to amuse himself that way.
A look of repugnance shadowed her eyes. And foreboding. When it came to that kind of partying some of the worst rich men were the newest rich men—especially those who came from countries just discovering how to make serious money.
Would this Alexei Constantin be like that? The country he came from was one of those in South Eastern Europe that seemed to have sprung up overnight in the last fifteen years after the fall of communism. What she knew of the place—Dalaczia—was minimal, though she'd looked it up a bit since last night. It would, she assumed hopefully, be a safe topic of conversation if she had to find one with the man. So far she had learned that Dalaczia shared a border with Greece, possessed a short Adriatic seaboard and some offshore islands, was mostly mountainous, and had been fought over for centuries by every power in the region, including Russia, Turkey, Austria, Greece, Italy and assorted Balkan states. The official religion was Orthodox, and the alphabet was a variation on Cyrillic. Its present independence was precarious and unstable—so was its current government. Not that Eve intended to discuss either—that could swiftly become contentious. Instead she had a list of notable natural features, some data on flora and fauna, and a smidgen of folk customs. That would have to do.
As for the man himself—well, if she was to go by the stereotype currently so popular in American films, Alexei Constantin would doubtless be some florid, overweight, middle-aged man, with a fleshy face and gold teeth, who'd made a bundle out of ruthlessly expropriating his country's assets since the fall of communism.
She gave a suppressed sigh. So what if he was? Her only task would be to make polite conversation with him until her father decided it was time to despatch her to her quarters and talk business. Her father's gloves would come off then. He fought rough, and very, very dirty—who knew better than she? Eve thought bitterly. But whatever he had planned for Alexei Constantin, she didn't want to know.
She didn't want to know anything of what her father did. She just wanted to keep him away from her life as much as she could. Not that that was easy, or even possible. Giles Hawkwood cast a long shadow.
She'd lived under it all her life.
And there was, she knew, no escape. No escape at all.
Her reflection gazed back at her from the mirror of the vanity unit in the lavish ladies' room on the ground floor of the Riviera hotel, and Eve studied it. It was the way she liked to look. Silvery-grey Grecian style evening gown with a draped bodice, pale hair in a coiled chignon, simple drop pearl earrings and matching necklace, subtle make up and hint of classic fragrance.
She looked cool, detached. Untroubled by the worries of the world. Cocooned and sheltered, the pampered daughter of one of the UK's richest men, with a flat in Chelsea and charge cards for every designer store in London.
That was what the outside world saw.
Only she knew different.
For a moment, her eyes shadowed.
Then, lifting her chin, she got to her feet. She had a role to play and no choice in the casting, and that was that.
She walked across the hotel's lobby, and paused at the entrance to the casino, her eyes quickly locating the table where her father was sitting, cognac glass at his elbow, wreathed in cigar fumes. Steeling herself, she straightened her spine and prepared to head back to her post at his side, as she was supposed to do.
Out of nowhere, a wave of depression hit her, crushing her with its weight. She'd lived like this so long—all her adult life—jerked on a string by her father, summoned when he wanted her for something, dismissed when he'd done with her, doing his bidding whenever it suited him.
If only I could escape—not be his daughter...be someone totally, completely different.
For a moment the desire was so intense she couldn't breathe. Then, with a jolt, her lungs opened to take in air again.
And she stilled.
There was a man walking from the bar area at the far side of the casino towards the wide arched doorway where she was standing. He was walking with a lithe, but purposeful gait, threading his way between the tables. For one totally absurd, irrational moment, Eve thought he was walking towards her. For an even briefer moment she felt her mouth suddenly dry. Then she realised he was simply heading for the lobby, and would need to pass her to do so.
Automatically she made to move her gaze away from him. But she couldn't.
Helplessly, she found herself watching him, unable to look away. Her mouth went dry again.
He was slimly built, his tuxedo fitting like a smooth glove over his svelte figure. She was used to seeing men in bespoke evening dress, but very few of them ever filled them as well as this man did.
But then, she acknowledged, very few of them had physiques remotely comparable to this man's.
Or, she realised, with a strange, breathless hollowing of her stomach, the looks to go with the physique. Dark hair, cut short, narrow face, high cheekbones, a blade of a nose and eyes—eyes that seemed as dark as a deep mountain lake caught in a hollow where the sunlight seldom reaches.
Something jolted through her, sucking the breath from her. She wanted to look—to keep looking. Her mind was racing almost as fast as her heart-rate.
He wasn't English; that was certain. Nor French nor Italian. Not Mediterranean, perhaps. So what, then? She frowned very slightly. The high cheekbones seemed almost Slavic, yet his skin tone was Mediterranean—or close by.
Whatever his racial origins, one fact about him was indisputable—he was the most arresting male she had ever set eyes on.
She could not pull her eyes away.
But she must.
She must because it did not matter that he was the most arresting male she'd ever seen. There was absolutely no point in thinking him so. No point in standing here gazing at him like some gawky teenager. No point feeling this sudden dryness of her mouth, the breathlessness in her lungs, the senseless racing of her heart-rate. No point at all.
She wasn't here to go stupid over a man. Any man.
She never went stupid over a man. Not since she'd realised, after she'd left school and started to look out at the adult world, that being Eve Hawkwood was not exactly an advantage when it came to romance. Whatever beauty she possessed, very few men ever saw past the looming presence of Giles Hawkwood.
She certainly could not, she knew bitterly.
And tonight—here—of all times and places—her father's shadow was darkening everything.
So there was only one thing to be done. Look away. Tear her eyes away from the man walking towards where she stood and let him walk by. Take no further notice of him—because, after all, what would be the point of doing otherwise?
No point, she knew.
With a huge effort, more than she'd thought she would have to make, she tried to tear her eyes away.
It was too late.
Out of nowhere, suddenly, as he strode past the last of the vingt-et-un tables, the man's eyes flicked to hers.
And the breath was crushed from her lungs.
It was like a blow impacting. But not with pain.
With something quite different.
Almost, Alexei paused in his stride. But not quite. It didn't stop his eyes fastening to hers, though. Didn't stop the sudden instinctive tightening that he felt.
She was blonde. Incredibly blonde. Pale hair and pale skin. With the fine-boned looks that only the English possessed.
And she was stunning with it. Perfect wide-set grey eyes, a slender nose, and a mouth that was slightly, very slightly parted.
Her body was tall, graceful, and perfectly proportioned. Long legs, rounded hips, hand-span waist and two perfect orbs for breasts. All covered by a silver-grey evening dress that was as subtly understated as her extraordinary beauty was not.
He felt the tightening again.
Hell, this was not the moment for this to happen—
He didn't need this. Not now. Not here. Not when all his energies had to be focussed on the one thing he was so close, so close, to achieving. The thing that had driven him, possessed him, all his adult life.
I haven't got time for this...
The hard, pitiless knowledge slammed through him.
He had to stop this. Now.
It was too late. His eyes had locked on to hers.
It lasted only a few seconds, but it was enough. Enough to send a shockwave through him that he could feel resonating in every cell in his body.
Desire bit through him.
And something else. Something he was not used to feeling. Something he could not identify.
For a handful of seconds his eyes held hers, as the distance between them shortened. She stood absolutely immobile, doing nothing, nothing at all, except locking her eyes to his. As if that was all that was keeping her upright.
He felt his stride slowing, preparing to stop, to pause. To veer towards her...
No! He hadn't got time for this—this was the wrong time, the wrong place.
But the right woman?
The voice whispered in his head. He silenced it. Ruthlessly he slammed it down with all the rigid self-control he steered his life by. He swept his lashes down over his eyes to shut her from his sight.
As the lashes swept upwards again he realised that she had gone.
Eve bolted. Slipping sideways, she twisted away and hurried as fast as her high heels would let her towards the plate glass doors that led out towards the pool deck overlooking the sea. Her heart was beating like a wild thing, and her cheeks were suddenly burning.
Oh, dear heaven—
Her mind was in chaos. She felt as if a jolt of electricity had just been blasted through her body without warning.
Those eyes, looking straight into hers...
Heat fanned through her again. She took a tumbling breath and kept walking as rapidly as she could, not paying the slightest attention to where she was going.
Nothing like this had ever happened to her before! Where on earth had it come from? What was it about that man that had overset her like this? She sucked air into her stomach and tried to steady her breathing, deliberately slowing her hectic pace.
As she did, determinedly calming her breath, even if there was nothing she could do for her racing heart-rate, she tried to get a grip of herself.
You just saw a fantastic-looking male. That was all. You've seen a lot of them in your time. They're not exactly uncommon in the world.
Even as she reasoned with herself, she knew what she said was not true. There might be fantastic-looking males in the world, and she might have seen a lot of them—but none had ever made her react like that to them. None had made her just want to stare, and stare, and stare at them, while her heart-rate went crazy inside her and her breathing stopped.
His image leapt into her mind's eye. She could recall it perfectly, and even just recalling it sent a frisson through her.
Something about him...
Again she felt that frisson go through her, as she remembered the endless moment when his eyes had locked to hers, jolting electricity through her with a voltage she'd never experienced before.
His eyes had done something to her that she couldn't explain. It wasn't lust. God knew she'd been on the receiving end of looks like that ever since she was a teenager. This was something much, much more powerful. Much more disturbing.
Much more devastating.
Her heart-rate started to clatter again, and she felt her pace increase. This time she let it. She'd realised where she was now. On a paved terrace that led along the rocky edge of the sea between the hotel's gardens and the Mediterranean. The path led through pine trees, which blessedly shielded the lights from the hotel, and ended, she knew from previous visits to the hotel— one of her father's favourites, thanks both to the casino and the marina where he had his yacht moored—at a miniature promontory overlooking the sea, set with stone seats from which to look at the view in daytime.
She gained it within a few more minutes, but did not sit down. The stone would be too cold with nothing to protect her but her thin evening dress. Instead she leant against the balustrade, trying to steady her breath, her pulse, and gazed out over the night-darkened Mediterranean, at the tiny waves breaking on the rocks below the terrace. Above her, stars were pricking out, and behind her the moon was starting to rise. An almost imperceptible breeze came off the sea, tugging her hair into tendrils around her face, freeing them from the confines of the low chignon at the nape of her neck. The mild night air netted her, the scent of the sea and the pines quieted her. Slowly she felt the heat seep from her cheeks, her heart-rate slow.
And into its place came a yearning that was almost a sadness. What did it matter that she'd just set eyes on a man who had had such an extraordinary effect on her? It was pointless thinking about him. Quite pointless. She was unlikely to see him again, as he had clearly been heading out of the casino, and very probably the hotel, but even if he weren't, so what? Nothing whatsoever could possibly come of her reacting to him like that.
All he could ever be was a fantasy. No one real. No one who could possibly have anything to do with her. Just a vague dream of what might have been in a different life.
That was all. Nothing more than that.
She went on looking out over the dark sea, her eyes as shadowed as the night.