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Antonio Chatsfield sent silent not interested vibes to the lustrous dark-haired beauty sitting at the bar with her breasts displayed to prominent advantage in her low-cut dress, her kohlenhanced eyes firmly on him.
Everything about her jangled at his sensitive nerve ends. She was too obvious. Too smooth. Too polished. This whole place was too polished. He cast a jaundiced glance around the dark and sensual bar space of his family's London flagship hotel. For the past decade he'd been used to surroundings that were more likely to be made of rubble and scented with the stench of chaos, death and panic. But he pushed those thoughts aside. Not now.
He'd chosen to come here for the dark corners and dim lighting as opposed to drinking himself into a stupor in the hotel suite which he currently called home. He smiled grimly to himself: at least he could appreciate the functionality of wanting to numb himself while in the presence of other humans. His therapist would undoubtedly approve.
That functionality had been hard fought for but even now the familiar feeling of skin-prickling clamminess was never too far away for him to forget completelythe stomach-churning terror that used to grip him at random moments, sparked by something as minor as a dog barking or a loud noise, wrenching him out of the present and back to the cataclysmic past.
But the drink wasn't having much of an effect this evening. It was as if the acerbity inside him was diluting the effects. Even the woman lost interest now, turning her attention to another man who had just arrived at the other end of the bar. Antonio saw them exchange glances and saw the man indicate for the bartender to order her another drink.
Mentally he saluted them. He'd had enough encounters like that in his time. He just wasn't in the mood for one right now. Something spiked in his gut; he hadn't been in the mood for longer than he cared to admit, preferring to bury himself in work to avoid the gaping chasm inside him that he used to fill with meaningless encounters and high-octane danger.
He'd only been back in London for a couple of months, after years in exile, albeit punctuated by trips home. He was back because his family was in a state of crisis. His father had installed Christos Giatrakos as CEO to take charge of the family businessa worldwide string of eponymous luxury hotels that had been the byword in glamour and luxury since the 1920s.
The crisis was one of reputation and potential damage to the exclusive Chatsfield brand. Antonio's younger siblings, with the exception of his sister Lucilla, who had begged him to come and help, were all seemingly hell-bent on various forms of self-destruction amidst screaming headlines and lurid paparazzi shots. God knew, Antonio had indulged in his fair share of self-destruction along the way. He'd also left home when a lot of them were on the cusp of adulthood, so he could hardly judge them now.
Antonio had turned his back on his inheritance a long time ago and had had no intention of taking up the reins again, especially not when the autocratic Greek CEO wanted him to utilise his military and business expertise under the position of head of strategy to orchestrate the resurrection and expansion of the Chats-field brand.
But his closest sibling, Lucilla, had begged him to reconsider, indicating that it would be the perfect position from which to help her topple the CEO. Apparently Giatrakos didn't know better than to let the enemy in through the front gate. And Lucilla's entreaties had called to that part of Antonio that still wanted to make things better. He felt that he'd left it too long to step in and offer to help his other brothers and sister, who were all fully fledged adults by now, but Lucilla had expressly asked him to help her. She wanted to prove to Giatrakos that they could restore the somewhat tarnished Chatsfield name by covertly taking over a rival hotel business, the Kennedy Group, before the shareholders' meeting in August, demonstrating that they had no need of an outsider. And if that meant coming back to a place he'd have preferred never to see again, then so be it.
A familiar ache grew in Antonio's chest to think of his siblings and how none of them, including himself, had ever really had a chance, let down by their parents long ago. He'd done his best for a while, but it hadn't been enough.
The old wounds of the blazing row he'd had with his father more than ten years ago were still vivid. That was when he'd realised how futile his efforts were and that perhaps the best thing he could do for his family was to walk away and let them get on with it. As his father had reminded him all too succinctly, Antonio wasn't his brothers' and sisters' father and never would be, so he might as well give up trying.
A mirthless smile touched Antonio's mouth. His sister Lucilla knew him well. She sensed the guilt he felt for having left his family when he had, even though she'd been the one to urge him to go. She also sensed his restlessness, his rootlessness. But perhaps most of all she was counting on his wellingrained sense of responsibility still being partly intact. They'd been united in a heavy burden the day their mother had left their home, never to be seen from that day to this.
Antonio, despite all of the other mental images he'd accrued over the past decade, each one more horrific than the last, would never be able to erase the image of teenaged Lucilla holding their newborn baby sister in her arms, tears running down her cheeks. Antonio, she's gone just left us here. Alone.
Antonio had been too angry and overwhelmed and scared to say anything, so he'd just pulled Lucilla and their baby sister into his arms, vowing to himself that he wouldn't let the family fall apart. Whatever it took. He was fifteen at the time.
Disgusted to find his thoughts deviating down that unwelcome path, Antonio downed his drink, telling himself he'd be better off in his suite after all and not infecting the clientele with his surly presence. After all, he was trying to help his sister .
But just when he was about to make a move from the stool, the door opened and a woman walked in and Antonio's head blanked of any intention except to stay where he was.
He wasn't sure what it was about her that arrested him so powerfully. Maybe it was that she immediately stood out with her paler than pale colouring, made even more noticeable against the stark black of her dress. Maybe it was her long, slim, shapely bare legs and the classic black high heels. Whatever it was, Antonio couldn't move, his eyes tracking her graceful movements with a precision that had come from years of practice tracking targets that were far more lethal.
She came to the middle of the bar and waited patiently for the bartender to attend her. She had vibrant bright red hair, caught up in a high bun, showing off her delicate neck. A heavy blunt fringe was swept a little to one side; her eyes looked blue, but dark. Her dress was all at once discreet and sexy. It was silk and draped her from neck to mid-thigh, cinched in at the waist.
She had slender arms and delicate wrists. Short functional nails painted with clear polish. A black clutch bag. Diamond stud earrings and no other jewellery. Antonio realised that she wasn't as tall as he'd imaginedhe'd guess about five foot four without the heels. Petite.
Instantly that awareness of her inherent feminine fragility caused a slow burn in his groin, sending blood to his penis, thickening and hardening the shaft of flesh. Antonio had to move slightly to accommodate his body, mildly frustrated that he was being so easily stimulated when he'd felt dead inside at the other woman's far more obvious charms.
From what he could tell under the loose-fitting silk of the dress, this woman's breasts were small. Maybe small enough not to wear a bra. Just then she moved slightly and Antonio realised that there was a slash in the front panel of her dress from the neck to just under her breasts, so discreet you mightn't notice, but he did. He also noticed a tantalising curve of one pale breast, pert and firm.
Desire engulfed him, swift and debilitating, as he imagined sliding a hand into that gap of material and cupping her breast, feeling the scrape of her hard nipple against his palm.
Orla Kennedy stood at the bar and tried not to let the prickle of self-consciousness make her run back out the original Lalique-panelled door of the seriously intimidating dark and decadent 1920s bar. She reminded herself stoutly that she was here for Dutch courage and to gain precious inside knowledge ahead of her meeting, so she couldn't give up just because she felt as if every single pair of eyes was on her, singling her out as a sad woman drinking alone. Or worse, she realised when she saw a man and woman obviously flirting at the other end of the bar, that she was here to pick up a man!
Orla glanced furtively around her, picking out some more couples at the intimate tables and a group of city boys in suits sitting at a table along the wall near the back of the bar. She breathed a sigh of relief that no one seemed to be laughing and pointing at her and decided to sit on a stool at the bar, noting that she could take in what was happening through the antique mirror on the opposite wall.
The handsome bartender put her drink in front of her with a wink and Orla thanked him, signing it to her room. She took a sip but still felt that slightly uncomfortable prickling sensation, as if someone was watching her.
Maybe it hadn't been a good idea to book a room at the Chatsfield Hotel ahead of her meeting with them tomorrow. She'd thought, in a light-bulb moment of inspiration, that it would serve her to get a measure of the people who seemed to be intent on taking over her own family's ailing hotel business. Not that she needed to stay at the hotel to know of its well-documented luxu-riousness and exclusivity.
However, its reputation had taken a dent in recent times, thanks to the scandalous exploits of the Chatsfield heirs and heiresses. Orla's soft mouth firmed to think of how they seemed determined to acquire chains in distress. Namely, the Kennedy Group, started up and owned by her father. He'd begun in Ireland in the sixties with a small hotel in the west of Ireland and through sheer grit and determination had built up an empirehelped along by the famed boom years. By then Patrick Kennedy had moved operations to England with his wife and young daughter, Orla.
Unfortunately the economic downturn hadn't been kind to them and a series of hotel closures had severely diminished their overall worth, making them vulnerable to takeover bids. They were nowhere near the league of the Chatsfield empire, but Orla could see how they would be an attractive prospect to add to the Chatsfield portfolio, as they weren't too far removed with their good reputation and discreetly exclusive clientele. Which was why she was here now, trying to get a feel for their adversary. And, she realised with a sinking feeling, all it was doing was driving home just how intimidating a task she was facing.
The feeling of being watched was so intense at that moment that Orla looked to her left and the breath left her mouth in a gasp when she saw a man deep in the shadows, at the corner of the bar, watching her intently. He didn't look away. And, to her rising mortification, neither could she.
It was the shock of colliding with that dark unsettling gaze, of not noticing him before now, that held her enthralled. She wondered how she could have missed him. He commanded the space around him. He was dark and broad. Short thick hair. Dramatic masculine features. Almost harsh. An unsmiling grim mouth, but full lips, his top one slightly fuller, and suddenly Orla was fixated on his mouth, and wondering what it would feel like to have those unsmiling lips touch hers.
The realistion of what she was doingstaring at a complete stranger's mouth and wondering what it would be like to kiss himhit Orla squarely in the chest and she almost fell off the stool she was so embarrassed. Cheeks flaming, she swung her guilty gaze back to her drink and then knew she couldn't stay there spotlit under the bar's lights, dim as they were.
Aghast that the man might have misconstrued her look, she gathered up her bag and the drink and moved to one of the tables against the wall which was covered in dark opulent velvet. She chose to sit at the wall, on the banquette seat, and breathed a sigh of relief to be slightly more hidden, cursing herself that she hadn't had the sense to just come in and choose a seat and let her order be taken.
She noticed her heart was thumping harder than usual, a queer fluttering low in her abdomen, and looked over to where the man was again, confident that he wouldn't see her now. But she could see him and he was still looking at her. Orla's pulse raced. She'd never experienced this before. It felt earthy, wicked, sexy.
Against the silk of her dress, her bare breasts peaked, making tremors of awareness shoot up and down her body. She'd only realised when she'd unpacked that she hadn't brought the bra she had to wear with this dress. And she'd had to wear the dress as she didn't want to look too conspicuous in the bar in the trouser suit she'd brought for the meeting tomorrow.
She'd figured that the loose material would hide the fact that she was braless as she was lucky enough, or unlucky enough, that her breasts were on the small side. But now, she felt as if she might as well be naked and was acutely aware of the gap in the material which usually showed only a discreet glimpse of the bra but which would now show skin if someone looked hard enough. Like the man. He'd been looking hard enough. Instant heat moistened between Orla's legs and she squirmed.
She resolutely diverted her gaze from the man and looked down, hunching her shoulders slightly for fear of giving anyone else the slightest bit of encouragement.