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Some said confidence was the most potent aphrodisiac of all, but for the man the world of rugby called 'the Bear', confidence was only a starting point. Confidence took courage, something Ethan Alexander proved he had each time he faced the world with his disfiguring scars.
A change swept over the Stadio Flaminio in Rome when Ethan took his seat to watch Italy play England in the Six Nations rugby tournament. Men sat a little straighter, while women flicked their hair as they moistened their immaculately made-up lips.
Without the Bear, any match, even an international fixture like this one, lacked the frisson of danger Ethan carried with him. Tall, dark, and formidably scarred, Ethan was more than an avid rugby supporter, he was an unstoppable tycoon, a man who defied the standards by which other men were judged. His face might be damaged, but Ethan possessed a blistering glamour born of keen intelligence and a steely will. His grey eyes blazed with an internal fire women longed to feel scorch them, and men wished they could harness, but today that passion had ebbed into simmering frustration as he contemplated human frailty. How could something as simple as a sore throat lead a world-famous diva like Madame de Silva to pull out of singing the national anthem for England at such an event as this?
The same way a damaged spine could end his own career as a professional rugby player, Ethan's inner voice informed him with brutal honesty.
He'd brought in a young singer as a replacement for Madame de Silva. Savannah Ross had recently been signed to the record company he ran as a hobby to reflect his deep love of music. He hadn't met Savannah, but Madame de Silva had recommended her, and his marketing people were touting the young singer as the next big thing.
Next big thing maybe, but Savannah Ross was late on pitch. He flashed a glance at the stadium clock that counted down the seconds. Hiring an inexperienced girl for an important occasion like this only reminded him why he never took risks. He'd thought it a good idea to give his new signing a break; now he wasn't so sure. Could Savannah Ross come up with the goods? She better had. She'd been flown here on his private jet and he'd been told she'd arrived. So where was she?
Ethan frowned as he shifted his powerful frame. The execution of last-minute formalities was timed to the second to accommodate a global television audience. No allowances could be made for inexperience, and he wouldn't allow for last-minute nerves. Savannah Ross had accepted this engagement, and now she must perform.
This wasn't like any theatre she'd ever played in before, or any concert-hall either. It was a bleak, tiled tunnel filled with the scent of sweaty feet and tension. She didn't even have a proper dressing-room to get changed innot that she minded, because it was such an honour to be here. Hard to believe she would soon be singing the national anthem on the pitch for the England rugby squador at least she would once she found someone to tell her where she was supposed to go and when.
Poking her head through the curtain of the 'dressing-room' she'd been allocated, Savannah called out. No one answered. Not surprising, in this shadowy tunnel leading to the pitch. The lady who had issued Savannah with a visitor's pass at the entrance had explained to her that what rooms there were would be needed for the teams and their support staff. Knowing Madame de Silva always travelled in style with an entourage, including Madame's hairdresser and the girl whose job it was to care for Madame's pet chihuahua, Savannah guessed the management of the stadium had been only too relieved to release the many rooms Madame would have taken up. And she was grateful for what she had: an adjunct to the tunnela hole in the wall, reallyan alcove over which somebody had hastily draped a curtain.
And she had more important things on her mind than her comfort, like the clock ticking away the seconds before the match. She had definitely been forgotten, which was understandable. Taking Madame's place had been so last-minute, and her signing to the record label so recent, that no one knew her. How could anyone be expected to recognise or remember her? And though she had been guided to this alcove everyone had rushed off, leaving her with no idea what she was supposed to do. Sing? Yes, that was obvious, but when should she walk onto the pitch? And was she supposed to wait for someone to come back to escort her, or should she just march out there?
Hearing the chanting of the excited crowd, Savannah knew she must find help. She was about to do just that when she heard the rumble of conversation coming closer. A group of businessmen was striding down the tunnel and they must pass her curtained alcove. She would ask one of them what to do.
'Excuse me' Savannah's enquiry was cut short as whoosh, splat!she was flattened against the wall like an invisible fly. The men were so busy talking they hadn't even noticed her as they'd thundered past, talking about the man they called the Bear, a man who had made his own way to his seat when all of them had been jostling to be the one to escort him.
Savannah shivered involuntarily. That was the nickname of the tycoon who had sent his jet to fetch her. Ethan Alexander, rugby fanatic and international billionaire, was an unattached and unforgettable man, a shadowy figure who regularly featured in the type of magazines Savannah bought when she wanted to drool over unattainable men. No one yet had gained a clear insight into Ethan's life, though speculation was rife, and of course, the more he shunned publicity, the more intriguing the public found him.
She really must stop thinking about Ethan Alexander and concentrate on her predicament. To save time she would put on her gown and then go hunting for help.
But even the sight of her beautiful gown failed to divert Savannah's thoughts from Ethan. From what the men had said about him, having Ethan at the match was akin to having royalty turn upor maybe even better, because he was an undisputed king amongst men. Taking into account the man-mountains in the England team, the Bear was the best of all the men there, they said; he was the deadliest in the pack.
Savannah shivered at the thought of so much undiluted maleness. By the time she had wriggled her way into her gown she had worked herself into a state of debilitating nerves, though she reasoned it wasn't surprising she was intimidated, when this tunnel led onto the pitch where the atmosphere was humming with testosterone and almost palpable aggression.
The thought took her straight back to Ethan. The power he threw off, even from the printed page, made him physically irresistible. Perhaps it was the steely will in his eyes, or the fact he was such a powerfully built man. He might be a lot older than she was, and terribly scarred, but she wasn't the only woman who thought Ethan's injuries only made him more compelling. In magazine polls he was regularly voted the man most women wanted to go to bed with.
Not that someone as inexperienced as her should be dwelling on that. No, Savannah told herself firmly, she was gripped more by the aura of danger and tragedy surrounding Ethan. In her eyes his scars only made him seem more human and real.
Oh, really? Savannah's cynical-self interrupted. So that would be why these 'innocent' thoughts of yours regularly trigger enough sensation to start a riot?
Prudently, Savannah refused to answer that. She had no time for any of these distractions. She poked her head round the curtain again. There was still no one there, and she was fast running out of options. If she continued to yell she'd have no voice left for singing. If she put her jeans on again and went looking for help, she'd be late onto the pitch. But she couldn't let Madame de Silva down, who had recommended her for this important occasion. She couldn't let down the squad, or Ethan Alexander, the man who had employed her. She'd put her dress on, then at least she'd be ready. Or her parents who had scrimped and saved to buy the dress for her, and she only wished they could be here with her now. Secretly she was happiest on the farm with them, up to her knees in mud in a pair of Wellington boots, but she would never trample on their dreams for her by telling them that.
As her mother's anxious face swam into her mind, Savannah realised it wasn't singing in front of a worldwide audience that terrified her, but the possibility that something might go wrong to embarrass her parents. She loved them dearly. Like many farmers they'd had it so hard when the deadly foot-and-mouth disease had wiped out their cattle. Her main ambition in life now was to make them smile again.
Savannah tensed, hearing her name mentioned on the tannoy system. And when the announcer described her in over-sugary terms, as the girl with the golden tonsils and hair to match, she grimaced, thinking it the best case she'd ever heard for dyeing her hair bright pink. The crowd disagreed and applauded wildly, which only convinced Savannah that when they saw her in person she could only disappoint. Far from being the dainty blonde the build-up had suggested, she was afresh-faced country girl with serious self-confidence issuesand one who right now would rather be anywhere else on earth than here.
Pull yourself together! Savannah told herself impatiently. This gown had cost a fortune her parents could scarcely afford. Was she going to let them down? She started to struggle with the zip. The gown had been precision-made to fit her fuller figure, and was in her favourite colour, pink. With the aid of careful draping it didn't even make her look fat. It was all in the cut and the boning, her mother had explained, which was why they always travelled up to the far north of England for Savannah's fittings, where there were dressmakers who knew about such things.
'You can't wear that!'
Savannah jumped back as her curtain was ripped aside. 'Do you mind?' she exclaimed, modestly covering her chest at the sight of a man whose physique perfectly matched his reedy voice. 'Why can't I wear it?' she protested, tightening her arms over her chest. It was a beautiful dress, but the man was looking at it as if it were a bin liner with holes cut in it for her head and arms.
'You just can't,' he said flatly.
Taking in the official England track-suit he was wearing, Savannah curbed her tongue, but she wasn't prepared to let the man continue with the peep show he seemed intent on having, and she held the curtain tightly around her. 'What's wrong with it?' she asked with all the politeness she could muster.
'It's not appropriateand if I tell you that you can't wear it then you can't.'
What a bully, she thought, and her flesh crawled as the man continued to stare at her curvy form behind the flimsy curtain. Did he mean the neckline was too low? She always had trouble hiding her breasts, and as she'd got older she hated the way men stared at them. She would be the first to acknowledge her chest was currently displayed to best advantage in the low-cut gown, but it was a performance outfit. She could hardly hide her large breasts under her arms! 'Not appropriate how?' she said, standing her ground.
The man's disappointment that she didn't fold immediately was all too obvious. 'The Bear won't approve of it,' he said, as if that was the death knell of any hopes she had of wearing it.
'The Bear won't approve?' Savannah's heart fluttered a warning. To walk out onto the pitch and have Ethan Alexander stare at her She had dreamed of it, but now it was going to happen she was losing confidence fast. That didn't mean she wouldn't defend her dress to kingdom come. 'I don't understand. Why wouldn't he approve of it?'
'It's pink,' the man said, his face twisting as if pink came with a bad smell.
Savannah's face crumpled. It was such a beautiful dress, and one her mother had been so thrilled to buy for her. They had discussed the fact that hours of dedicated work had gone into the hand-stitching alone, and now this man was dismissing the handiwork of craftswomen in a few unkind words.
'You'll have to take it off.'
'What?' Savannah felt the cold wall pressing against her back.
'I understand you're a last-minute replacement,' the man said in a kinder tone, which Savannah found almost creepier than his original hectoring manner. 'So you won't know that a major sponsor has supplied a designer gown for the occasion, which he expects to be worn. The dress has received more publicity than you have,' the man added unkindly.
'I'mnot surprised,' Savannah muttered to herself. Well, it could hardly have received less, she thought wryly, seeing as she was a last-minute replacement. She kept a pleasant expression on her face, determined she wouldn't give this man the satisfaction of thinking he'd upset her.
'And the Bear expects all the sponsors, however small their donations, to get their fair share of publicity, so you'll have to wear it,' he finished crossly when she refused to capitulate.
Perhaps he would like her to cry so he could play the big man to her crushed little woman, Savannah reflected. If so, he was in for a disappointment. Because she was plump and rather short, people often mistook her for a sweet, plump, fluffy thing they could push around, when actually she could stick her arm up a cow and pull out a newborn calf during a difficult birth, something that had given her supreme joy on the few occasions she'd been called upon to do so. Her slender arms were kinder on a struggling mother, her father always said. She didn't come from the sort of background to be intimidated by a man who looked like he had a pole stuck up his backside.
'Well, if that's the dress I'm supposed to wear,' she said pragmatically, 'I'd better see it.' She hadn't come to Rome to cause ripples, but to do a job like anyone else, and the clock was ticking. Plus she was far too polite to say what she really wanted to say, which was what the hell has it got to do with the Bear what I wear?