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The Louvre Auditorium—Paris
It happened in an instant. A fleeting glance across the crowded auditorium of the Louvre and wham, Ella felt as though she had been struck by a lightning bolt.
The man was standing some distance away, surrounded by a group of seriously chic Frenchwomen who were all vying for his attention. Her first impression in those few heart-stopping seconds when their eyes met was that he was tall, dark and devastatingly handsome—but when she tore her gaze from his piercing blue stare she instinctively added the word dangerous to the list.
Shaken by her reaction to a complete stranger, she stared down at her champagne glass, dismayed to find that her hands were trembling, and tried to concentrate on her conversation with a music journalist from the culture section of Paris Match.
'The audience were enraptured by you tonight, Mademoiselle Stafford. Your performance of Prokofiev's second violin concerto was truly outstanding.'
'Thank you.' Ella smiled faintly at the journalist, but she was still supremely conscious of the intense scrutiny of the man standing on the other side of the room, and it took all her willpower to resist turning her head. It was almost a relief when Marcus appeared at her side.
'You know everyone's saying a star has been born tonight?' he greeted her excitedly. 'You were bloody marvellous, Ella. I've just sneaked a preview of the review Stephen Hill is writing for The Times, and I quote—"Stafford's passion and technical bravura are out of this world. Her musical brilliance is dazzling, and her performance tonight cements her place as one of the world's top violinists." Not bad, eh?' Marcus could not hide his satisfaction. 'Come on—you need to circulate. There are at least half a dozen other journalists who want to interview you.'
'Actually, if you don't mind, I'd really like to go back to the hotel.'
Marcus's smile slipped when he realised that Ella was serious. 'But this is your big night,' he protested.
Ella bit her lip. 'I realise that the party is an ideal opportunity for more publicity, but I'm tired. The concert was draining.' Particularly when she'd spent the few hours before her solo performance ravaged by nerves, she thought ruefully. Music was her life, but the crippling stage fright she suffered every time she played in public was far from enjoyable, and sometimes she wondered if pursuing a career as a soloist was what she really wanted when it made her physically sick with fear.
'You attracted an A-list audience tonight, and you can't just disappear,' Marcus argued. 'I've seen at least two ministers from the French government, not to mention a Russian oligarch.' He glanced over Ella's shoulder and gave a low whistle. 'Don't look now, but Vadim Aleksandrov is heading this way.'
With a heavy sense of inevitability Ella turned her head a fraction, and felt her heart slam beneath her ribs when her eyes clashed once more with a startling blue gaze. The man was striding purposefully towards her, and she stared transfixed at the masculine beauty of his classically sculpted features and his jet-black hair swept back from his brow.
'Who is he?' she whispered to Marcus.
'A Russian billionaire—made his fortune in mobile phones and now owns a satellite television station, a British newspaper and a property empire that is said to include half of Chelsea— or Chelski, as some now call it,' Marcus added dryly. He broke off quickly, but Ella did not need the sight of Marcus's most ingratiating smile to tell her that the man was close behind her. She could feel his presence. The spicy scent of his cologne assailed her senses, and the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end when he spoke in a deep, melodious voice that was as rich and sensuous as the notes of a cello.
'Forgive my intrusion, but I would like to offer my congratulations to Miss Stafford on her performance tonight.'
'Mr Aleksandrov.' Marcus's hand shot past Ella's nose as he greeted the Russian. 'I'm Marcus Benning, Ella's publicist. And this, of course —' he patted Ella's shoulder in a faintly possessive manner '—is Lady Eleanor Stafford.'
Ella blushed, and felt a surge of irritation with Marcus, who knew she disliked using her title but insisted that it was a good marketing tool. But as she turned to face the man, Marcus, the other guests, everything faded, and only Vadim Aleksandrov existed. Her eyes flew to his face and her blush deepened at the feral gleam in his gaze. A curious mix of fear and excitement shot through her, together with the ridiculous feeling that her life would never be the same again after this moment. She felt a strange reluctance to shake his hand, and shock ripped through her when he lifted her fingers to his mouth and pressed his lips to her knuckles.
'Eleanor.' His accented gravelly voice sent the same quiver of pleasure down her spine that she felt when she drew her bow across the strings of her violin. The feather-light brush of his mouth against her skin burned as if he had branded her, and with a little gasp she snatched her hand back, her heart beating frantically beneath her ribs.
'It's an honour to meet you, Mr Aleksandrov,' Marcus said eagerly. 'Am I right that your company holds the monopoly on mobile phone sales in Russia?'
'We certainly took advantage of the gap in the communications market in its early days of trading, but the company has grown and diversified widely since then,' Vadim Aleksandrov murmured dismissively. He continued to stare intently at Ella, and Marcus finally took the hint.
'Where are all the damn waiters? I could do with a refill,' he muttered, waving his empty champagne glass before he wandered off towards the bar.
For a split second Ella was tempted to race after him, but the enigmatic Russian's brilliant blue eyes seemed to exert a magnetic hold over her, and she was so overwhelmed by his potent masculinity that she found herself rooted to the spot.
'You played superbly tonight.'
'Thank you.' She struggled to formulate a polite response, her whole being conscious of the electrical attraction that arced between them. She had never experienced anything like it before, never been so acutely aware of a man, and it was frankly terrifying.
Vadim's sardonic smile warned her that he recognised her awareness of him. 'I have never heard another non-Russian play Prokofiev with the passionate intensity for which he—and many of my countrymen—are renowned,' he murmured, in a crushed-velvet voice that seemed to enfold Ella in its intimate caress.
Was that a roundabout way of telling her that he was passionate? The thought came unbidden into her head, and colour flared along her cheekbones as she acknowledged that he had no need to point out what was so blindingly obvious—even to her, with her severely limited sexual experience. Vadim Aleksandrov wore his virility like a badge, and she found the bold appreciation in his eyes as he trailed them over her body deeply unsettling.
'Are you enjoying the party?'
Ella glanced around the packed reception room, where several hundred guests were all talking at once. The hubbub of voices hurt her ears. 'It's very nice,' she murmured.
The glint of amusement in Vadim's eyes told her he knew she was lying. 'I understand you are giving another performance tomorrow evening, so I assume you are staying in Paris?'
'Yes. At the Intercontinental,' she added when his brows lifted quizzically.
'I'm at the George V, not far from you. I have a car waiting outside—can I offer you a lift back to your hotel? Maybe we could have a drink together?'
'Thank you, but I can't rush away from the party,' Ella mumbled, aware that a couple of minutes ago she had planned to do just that. But Vadim Aleksandrov's blatant sensuality disturbed her composure far too much for her to contemplate socialising with him. The hungry look in his eyes warned her that he would expect a drink in the bar to lead to an invitation up to her room—and she was very definitely not the sort of woman who indulged in one-night stands.
But supposing she had been the sort of woman who invited a sexy stranger to spend the night with her? For a second her imagination ran riot, and a series of shocking images flashed into her mind, of Vadim undressing her and touching her body before he drew her down onto the crisp white sheets of her hotel bed and made love to her.
What was she thinking? She could feel the heat radiating from her face and hastily dropped her eyes from Vadim's speculative gaze, terrified that he might somehow have read her thoughts.
'The party is in your honour. Of course I understand your eagerness to remain,' he drawled in a faintly mocking tone. 'I'll be in London next week. Perhaps we could have dinner one evening?'
Ella swiftly dismissed the crazy impulse to accept his invitation. 'I'm afraid I'll be busy.'
'Every evening?' His sensual smile caused her heart to skip a beat. 'He's a lucky man.'
She frowned. 'Who is?'
'The lover who commands your attention every night.'
'I don't have a lover—' She stopped abruptly, realising that she had unwittingly revealed more about her personal life than she'd wished. The gleam of satisfaction in his eyes triggered alarm bells and she sent up a silent prayer of thanks when she caught sight of Marcus making signs for her to join him at the bar. 'If you'll excuse me, I think my publicist has arranged for me to give an interview.' She hesitated, while innate good manners battled with the urge to put as much distance as possible between herself and the disturbing Russian, and then said hurriedly, 'Thank you for the invitation, but music takes up all my time and I'm not dating at the moment.'
Vadimhad moved imperceptibly closer, so that she could feel the heat emanating from his body. She stiffened, her eyes widening in shock when he reached out and stroked his finger lightly down her cheek. 'Then I shall just have to try and persuade you to change your mind,' he promised softly, before he turned and walked away, leaving her staring helplessly after him.
London—a week later
The Garden Room at Amesbury House buzzed with the murmur of voices as guests filed in and took their seats. The members of the Royal London Orchestra were already in their places, and there was the usual rustle of sheet music and a ripple of conversation from the musicians as they prepared for the concert.
Ella lifted her violin out of its case and gave a tiny shiver of pleasure as she ran her fingers over the smooth, polished maple. The Stradivarius was exquisite, and incredibly valuable. Several collectors had offered her a fortune for the rare instrument— more than enough for her to be able to buy somewhere to live and still leave her with a sizeable nest egg should her career falter. But the violin had belonged to her mother; its sentimental value was incalculable and she would never part with it.
She flicked through the music sheets on the stand in front of her, mentally running through the symphony, although she had little need of the pages of notes when she had put in four hours of practice that afternoon. Lost in her own world, she was only vaguely conscious of the voices around her until someone spoke her name.
'You're miles away, aren't you?' her fellow first violinist, Jenny March, said impatiently. 'I said, it looks as though one of us has an admirer—although sadly I don't think it's me,' she added, the note of genuine regret in her voice finally causing Ella to look up.
'Who do you mean?' she murmured, casting a curious glance around the room.
The orchestra had performed at Amesbury House in London's west end on several occasions. The Garden Room held an audience of two hundred, and provided a more intimate atmosphere than larger venues, but Ella preferred the anonymity of the Royal Albert Hall or the Festival Hall. Her eyes skimmed along the front row of guests and juddered to a halt on the figure sitting a few feet away from her.
'Oh! What's he doing here?' she muttered, jerking her head away seconds too late to avoid the familiar glinting gaze of the man who had plagued her dreams every night for the past week.
'You know him?' Jenny's eyes widened, and she could not disguise the hint of envy in her voice. 'What a dark horse you are, Ella. He's seriously gorgeous. Who is he?'
'His name is Vadim Aleksandrov,' Ella said in a clipped tone, aware that Jenny would badger her for information all night. 'He's a Russian billionaire. I've met him once— briefly—but I don't know him.'
'Well, it's obvious he'd like to get to know you,' Jenny said musingly, intrigued by the twin spots of colour staining Ella's cheeks. Lady Eleanor Stafford was renowned for being cool and composed—so much so that she had earned the nickname of ice princess by a few of the other orchestra members—but at this moment Ella was looking distinctly flustered.
'I can't understand why he's here,' Ella muttered tensely. 'According to the gossip column in the magazine I read, he's supposed to be at the film festival in Cannes with a famous Italian actress.' The photo of him and his voluptuous companion had lodged in Ella's mind, and to her annoyance she had been unable to forget it, nor dismiss the shocking image in her head of a naked Vadim making love to his latest mistress. His private life did not interest her, she reminded herself sharply. Vadim Aleksandrov did not interest her, and she absolutely would not give in to the urge to turn her head and meet the piercing blue gaze she sensed was focused on her.
But her prickling awareness of him did not lessen, and she had to force herself to concentrate as the audience settled and the RLO's principal conductor, Gustav Germaine, lifted his baton. She adored Dvorak's New World Symphony, and she was annoyed with herself for being distracted by Vadim's presence. Taking a deep breath, she positioned her violin beneath her chin, and only then, as she drew her bow, did she relax and give all her attention to the music that flowed from wood and strings and seemed to surge up inside her, obliterating every other thought.
An hour and a half later the last notes of the symphony faded and the sound of the audience's tumultuous applause shattered Ella's dream-like state, catapulting her back to reality.
'Good grief! Gustav's almost smiling,' Jenny whispered as the members of the orchestra stood and bowed. 'That must mean he's satisfied with our performance for once. Too right—it sounded pretty well perfect to me.'
'I wasn't entirely happy with the way I played at the start of the fourth movement,' Ella muttered.