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OPENING night at Sydney's new Havana Club and Joaquin Luis Sola stood at the extremely busy bar, waiting for the drinks he'd ordered and idly watching the talent on the dance floor swirl by. His friend, legal advisor, and highly eligible man about town, Tony Fisher, had promised all the beautiful people would be here, to see and be seen in the hotspot of the moment, and Quin could undoubtedly pick himself a partner for more than dancing.
Much waggling of eyebrows to underline the point, but for Quin, joining Tony's party was more an escape from a sense of restless boredom than a quest for casual sex. Having recently ended a less than satisfying relationship, Quin wasn't sure he wanted to complicate his life with another woman just yet. A one-night stand didn't appeal, either. He wasn't actually watching for targets of possible interest, just watching
A colourful kaleidoscope of couples were swinging around the dance floor, doing the salsa. Latin American dancing was big on the social scene right now due to a number of popular television shows featuring competitions. The Havana Club was cleverly capitalising on this latest trend.
"Great way of meeting people," Tony had enthused.
"Everyone putting themselves on display, strutting their stuff."
They were certainly doing that, Quin thought, somewhat bemused by the exuberant and very public plunge into fun and fantasy. Most of the people here had wildly embraced Latin dance fashion; the guys in fitted shirts with big cuffs, bootleg pants, much attention paid to their hairdos; the women very glamorous in slinky sheaths with side splits, skintight black pants with halter midriff tops, frilled skirts and strappy stilettos.
Being in this club was like being in an exotic and erotic foreign country. Quin could see its appeal — a quick fix escape from the pressures of today's fast and frantic society — a place where people could let their hair down, revel in uninhibited dress-ups, enjoy the primitive pleasure of moving to music, not to mention the sexual excitement with the right partner.
A flashy couple caught his eye. The guy was all in white, his long black hair slicked back into a ponytail — very dramatic with his dark olive skin and hard featured handsome face. The woman partnering him was wearing a virtually backless black dress, its figure-hugging skirt ending in a ruffle edged in white. She also had long black hair, but it was a wild loose mass of curls falling to below her shoulder-blades, reminding Quin instantly of Nicole Ashton — not a memory he cared to dwell on.
"Your drinks, sir?"
Quin paid the bartender, cynically reflecting that the price of cocktails in this club belonged to the fantasy realm, too, aimed at a clientele who never counted the cost. Strange how it didn't matter how wealthy he had become, the concept of value for money still counted in his mind. Not that it stopped him from doing or buying whatever he wanted. It was simply impossible to forget the lessons of poverty.
With the drinks firmly clutched in his hands, Quin turned to weave his way around the crowded dance floor to the tables Tony had claimed for his party, and found the woman with Nicole's hair twirling right in front of him.
She had a great body; lush breasts straining against a halter-necked bodice edged in white. The skirt was split up to midthigh, the ruffle following the opening up, diminishing to a white tie-belt around a hand-span waist. Her hips were female poetry and her long shapely legs flashed with sexy elegance.
The guy in white caught her and dipped her over his knee, her lovely lithe body arched, toes in their black stilettos pointed, head thrown back, hair sweeping the floor, stunning green eyes sparkling with pleasure, her whole beautiful face vividly lit by a laughing smile — a face that delivered such a jolt to Quin, the drinks he was carrying sloshed over the rims of the glasses.
It was Nicole!
The thump to his heart and the kick to his gut were instantaneous. Shock, he tried to reason, after he'd pulled himself back from shooting a blistering bolt of hatred at the guy in white and halted the rampant urge to tear Nicole away from him.
Quite simply hadn't expected to run into her like this, hadn't expected their paths ever to cross again. She'd gone overseas after breaking up with him, taking herself completely out of his reach, yet here she was in this Sussex Street club, right under his nose. And attached to another guy.
Which also stood to reason, Quin savagely told himself. Why wouldn't she move on to other men? He'd moved on to other women, though never feeling the same intensity Nicole had drawn from him. In fact, he hadn't wanted to feel any deep emotional connection with anyone after she had walked out of his life. It was easier to function on the fast-moving business level without that kind of distraction.
And it was totally absurd to get in a twist over Nicole now. What was gone was gone. He wrenched his gaze away from the dance floor and guarded the drinks in his hands as he made his way back to those in Tony's party who were sitting out this number. He sat down next to Amber Piramo who'd requested the liquid refreshment, expecting him to pay and deliver, expecting her every whim to be indulged because she was the beautiful socialite daughter of old-wealth parents.
"Oh, thank you, my darling Quin," she gushed. "I am totally, totally dehydrated."
He wasn't her darling, and despite her obvious physical attractions, the overly flirtatious manner grated on him. He had to force a smile as he responded, "Sorry I was so long at the bar."
"No problem." She patted his thigh as she added, "It's been fun just watching the other dancers."
His leg muscles tensed, instinctively repelling the touch. His jaw clenched, too. The only touch he wanted but Nicole was with someone else now.
Amber withdrew the inviting hand and wrapped it around her glass. She drank too much, too fast, revealing a reckless disregard for the alcoholic content of the cocktail. Quin hoped she wasn't working up some courage to be more direct in coming onto him. While it might be an old-fashioned attitude these days, he still felt it was a man's prerogative to be the hunter.
His gaze instinctively targeted Nicole as the music stopped. Her ponytailed partner swept her to a table where another guy had just left a woman with wildly purple hair — definitely not a shrinking violet, wearing a black midriff top and skintight hot-pink pants. Intriguingly the three of them cosied up together, chatting and laughing — two women, one man between them, all very friendly.
Quin's view of them was blocked by Tony, comically miming wobbly legs and wiping his brow as he escorted his latest amour, Nina Salter-Smythe off the dance floor. "I need a fast and long injection of cold beer," he declared, leaving Nina at the table while he headed for the bar. She suggested a visit to the powder room to Amber and the two women went off together, leaving Quin free to watch Nicole without interruption.
He tried reminding himself this was a woman who had rejected him. He shouldn't be giving her a second thought, let alone a second look. It was an exercise in futility, in frustration.
Yet all his aggressive instincts were on fire. She'd been his woman and he wanted another chance with her.
If she wasn't actually married to the Latin lover who was flashing his eyes at both women indiscriminately, he had room to move.
And move he would.
His whole body was screaming at him to do it, mount an attack, get Nicole back into his life.
The moment Tony returned to the table, ready to play jovial host to the rest of his party friends, Quin was on his feet to intercept him before he sat down. "Spotted someone I want to meet," he explained. "Excuse me, won't you?"
"Wait a sec," came the quick protest. "How goes it with Amber? She's been eyeing you over."
"Non-event," Quin almost snapped, raising his hand to ward off any further comment as he swung to make a beeline for the woman who was the only event in his mind tonight.
NICOLE was having fun. She was glad she'd let Jade and Jules talk her into accompanying them here tonight. They had argued she should be armed with a firsthand report of the new Havana Club to pass onto her pupils, unaware that the dance school she was managing for her mother was in such dire debt that Nicole couldn't see a way out of it. She had accepted their invitation in a desperate need to push her worries aside for a while, to simply enjoy the zany company of her friends and not think about facing tomorrow until it came.
"Handsome hunk zeroing in on you, Nic." Jade rolled her big brown eyes expressively. "To your left. Nine o'clock."
Nicole laughed. "Score out of ten?"
She shook her head disbelievingly. Ever since Jade had returned from her extensive work experience with designers in Europe to set up business in Sydney, she had been trying to fix Nicole up with some guy, preaching one should keep involved with everything life had to offer, seeing Nicole's single status as unhealthy, even stunting her growth as a woman.
Jules leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Got to say Jade's spot-on. Mega macho bearing down on you. A star player."
Nicole winced at that phrase. Jules wouldn't know it — not his field — but it was the phrase used in banking circles to describe the top guns on the trading floor, and she'd once been intimately attached to a star player. Attached and burnt.
That voice a convulsive little shiver instantly ran down her spine. Her skin went cold. Her stomach contracted as her head jerked around, reacting to the need to deny the recognition blasting her mind and thumping into her heart. Except the recognition was not a mad mistake.
"Quin " His name fell from her lips before she could catch it back, and the awful part was the lingering sound of it seemed to carry a longing that was intensely embarrassing. She should have been expressing surprise.
It was certainly that.
He smiled, hitting her with the same megawatt attraction that had been her downfall seven years ago, his bullet grey eyes cutting straight through all lines of defence. The only thing that had changed about him were the silver threads shining through his thick thatch of black hair, giving a more mature authority to his strikingly handsome face — a face which had never lacked authority with its sharply chiselled features adding male strength and character to it. His tall, powerful physique shouted strength, as well, not to mention compelling sex appeal.
"Good to see you again, Nicole," he rolled out, the smooth deep timbre of his voice raising goose-bumps.
"What are you doing here?" The words burst abruptly from a surge of resentment at the way he could still affect her. He had dominated her life for two years — two years that had ultimately taught her she was nothing more than a sexual convenience to him.
His smile wasn't even slightly shaken. "I enjoy dancing remember?"
She didn't want to remember anything. Though he had been a great dancer the few times it actually suited him to partner her at parties.
"Hi! I'm Jade Zilic." Typical Jade, too fascinated to wait for an introduction, hand thrust out in ready friendship. "And you are?"
"Joaquin Sola. Mostly called Quin." He took her hand, nodding a polite acknowledgment, looking enquiringly at Jules.