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It was Auckland's society wedding of the year. Although the bride had come from nowhere, the daughter of a former employee of Sir Malcolm and Lady Donovan, the groom was the Donovans' only son—and until today one of New Zealand's most eligible bachelors.
Following the ceremony in the historic missionary church at Donovan's Falls, Sir Malcolm's widow had organised a lavish reception at Rivermeadows, the family's gracious nineteenth-century homestead.
Samantha Magnussen had dressed for the occasion in a superbly designed rich-cream silk summer suit. Her naturally blonde hair was styled to a shining cap that swung forward at her earlobes. A hot-pink wide-brimmed hat trimmed with huge gauze roses shaded her face from the sun and reflected a subtle warmth to her complexion. The slim purse she carried and the elegant Italian-made shoes on her narrow feet perfectly matched the colour of the hat.
Samantha had never been able to acquire a suntan, but the expertly sprayed salon version gave her bare arms and legs a convincing golden glow.
She might find the light blue eyes she'd inherited from her Scandinavian forebears colourless and uninteresting, the refusal of her hair to thicken or take any kind of curl frustrating, and certainly her mouth lacked the lush fullness that many women would endure the pain of injections to achieve. But Samantha knew she was fortunate in having regular features and smooth, fine skin. With skilful application of the right makeup her nondescript looks could pass for a kind of beauty.
And today she wanted to look her best.
Approaching the bridal couple where they stood at the top of the wide steps leading to the long veranda and the homestead's massive front door, she stifled a stab of jealousy as Bryn Donovan bent his handsome dark head to his bride and smiled at her with an intimacy that Samantha had never experienced. Not with Bryn, not with any man.
He was still talking to the last person to shake his hand when his new wife raised her brown eyes to Samantha.
Noting the difference in height between herself and Bryn's bride, she asked herself with a touch of cynicism why tall men seldom chose women close to their own stature.
There was only one way to get through the next several hours—slip into her Society Event persona. Pinning on her well-practised social smile, she introduced herself to Rachel, and as Bryn turned at the sound of her voice, added, "Bryn's a very good friend." Reminding herself: And that's all.
She put a hand on his shoulder and kissed him, a brief, non-sexual peck on his warm but unresponsive lips, surely allowable on his special day. Some people routinely greeted close friends this way.
Then she stepped back, her hand involuntarily sliding down the front of his jacket before returning to her side.
"Congratulations, darling," she said lightly, making Bryn's brows lift a fraction, his smile turn quizzical. "I never thought you'd do it. I guess even the tallest tree in the forest has to fall sometime." But not in my direction. Her smile, hiding piercing disappointment, didn't waver.
Bryn laughed, easily. "Very philosophical." He hooked an arm about Rachel's waist and pulled her closer. "I'm a lucky man."
Samantha had seen other intelligent and good-looking— and wealthy—men snared by women with little to offer beyond a pretty face and a passable pedigree. Still, although Rachel might lack the pedigree, apparently she wasn't short of brains—a historian and author, no less.
Studying the young woman for a moment, Samantha saw wariness in the dark eyes, perhaps uncertainty, but also determination in the tilt of her chin. Maybe Bryn had met his match. "You know," she told him, with reluctant respect for his choice, "I'm sure you're right. Does she know what she's taking on?" Bryn could be a formidable presence.
"I do," Rachel answered firmly. "I've known Bryn since I was five."
So keep off the grass? Samantha couldn't help but be intrigued. Even with Bryn's ring newly on her finger Rachel Donovan wasn't convinced of her husband's love.
Squashing a temptation to whisper in the bride's ear, Don't be such a goose! He's all yours now, so make the most of it! Samantha said with genuine sincerity, despite the pang it cost her, "Well, I wish you all the best. I hope you'll both be very happy." She certainly wanted it for Bryn. Her gaze shifted to him, but already Rachel had recaptured his attention—the man couldn't keep his eyes off her for a minute.
Samantha turned to walk away, her mouth unconsciously curving again in a wry, self-mocking smile, her eyes clashing with a deeply green, brown-flecked masculine stare no more than a metre or so away, that startled her with its glittering suspicion and animosity.
The eye contact lasted only long enough for a fleeting impression of a hostile storm-sea glare under lowered brows, a strong nose with flared nostrils, a clear-cut upper lip and a fuller, sensuous lower one, and a couple of weeks of dark growth lightly framing a wide, stubborn and very masculine chin.
The designer-stubble, just-got-out-of-bed look had never appealed to Samantha, yet despite his smouldering glare the beard shadow seemed to emphasise instead of detract from the man's striking good looks.
She moved through the crowd on the spacious lawn, skirting chattering groups of guests holding champagne flutes or coffee cups.
Glad she'd had the forethought not to wear stiletto heels that would have sunk into the ground and impeded her progress, she paused only to take a full glass from one of the circulating waiters before coming to a stop under the shade of a huge old magnolia, and realised she was almost panting, as if she'd been running across the short-cropped grass instead of walking at a perfectly normal pace.
She'd not even looked round to see whom she should be making small-talk with. It might be a private occasion, but many business decisions had their genesis in chance—or not-so-chance—meetings at gatherings like this. There were movers and shakers here, potentially important contacts.
None of them impinged on her consciousness, her inner eye still focused on the stranger who had stared at her with such inexplicable ferocity.
His hair had been a shoulder-length mane of unruly dark brown, shot with streaks that glinted golden-red in the sun. She'd have assumed he'd had it professionally highlighted, except that the luxuriant, uneven waves looked as if they'd been trimmed with hedge clippers and pushed back from his forehead with impatient fingers. Like the other men here he was dressed formally, yet despite the pearl-grey suit of impeccable cut and fit, a snowy-white shirt and olive-green silk tie, he seemed totally out of place.
The tree cast a broad, protective shadow over chairs set about small tables holding plates of gourmet hors d'oeuvres. A quick glance at the guests seated there showed her no one she knew, and right now she felt unsettled, not up to making polite conversation with strangers.
Perhaps she should have brought along a partner—any of a number of male friends would have been happy to oblige. But she hadn't wanted the bother of maintaining at close quarters a pretence of enjoying herself, and making sure a companion actually did.
Anyway, she didn't need a crutch, or a smokescreen. No one would imagine that Samantha Magnussen was without an escort for any reason but her own choice.
Taking a few steps out of the shade, she paused to admire the Donovan mansion. Beautifully maintained, it had stood the test of time with its white-painted timbers and long windows, gabled roofline and tall chimneys.
She was the daughter of a man who had made a fortune erecting much-admired public buildings and some very exclusive private homes. Throughout her childhood the family had moved from one show house to another, each bigger and more opulent than the last, superb advertisements for her father's burgeoning business.
Yet she had a special liking for beautifully crafted old houses like this one, with its air of permanence and grace, home to successive generations of one family.
She had been curious to see Rivermeadows for herself. That her first chance to do so had been Bryn Donovan's wedding invitation was perhaps ironic.
He and his bride were posing for photographs now on the wide steps, along with their attendants and various family members, the groups shifting from one take to the next.
The man who had fixed his inimical glare on Samantha mounted the steps with others for several shots, and Samantha wondered where he fitted in.
For a second time his eyes found hers. Even at this distance she felt the full force of his hostility, as if something had thumped her in the chest.
What was with the man? She was certain she'd never seen him before in her life. He surely had no reason to dislike her at first sight.
Even this late in the afternoon, perspiration was forming on her forehead under the brim of her hat. Looking away from the group on the steps, she caught sight of a path leading to the rear of the house. It would be cooler there, and the guests had been given carte blanche to enjoy the gardens for an hour while the wedding party was photographed, before a formal meal.
Slowly she made her way to the rear of the house where people gathered on a shaded terrace. Past the swimming pool, an archway invited a stroll under tall trees with flowers and plants beneath them. No one seemed to be taking up the opportunity and Samantha was alone as, sipping at her champagne, she followed the winding path until she found a small summerhouse shrouded in flowering climbers.
Removing her hat, she stepped into the dim, shady interior and sat down on a narrow bench. Then she leaned her head against the latticed wall and closed her eyes, allowing the peace and privacy to quiet her confused emotions.
She hadn't expected to feel so despondent about Bryn Donovan's marriage. It wasn't as though he'd ever shown the slightest sexual interest in her, even before Rachel Moore returned from working overseas and apparently bowled him over. For as long as Samantha had known him Bryn had been involved with some other woman, any hiatus between female companions soon filled.
For the past three years he and Samantha had been business associates, becoming firm friends. She wasn't sure when she'd begun to hope that friendship might one day morph into something more. And now it was too late.
Since the announcement of his engagement she'd tried to banish fruitless might-have-beens, persistent fantasies of how it would feel to be loved by a man like him.
Almost thirty years old and in good health, in charge of the very successful firm she'd inherited from her father, Samantha had the respect of the commercial community, the loyalty of a select circle of friends, and her choice of several undemanding and pleasant men whenever she needed one at her side for social reasons, or simply felt like enjoying male company.
Everything she needed or wanted was hers, and yet…
Something alerted her—perhaps a shadow falling across the doorway, a soft sound, or a change in the air around her.
Reluctantly opening her eyes, she recognised with a start the looming masculine bulk that blocked the entrance. He'd un-knotted the green tie that matched his eyes, and it hung loose, the collar of his shirt unbuttoned and showing a vee of sun-browned skin. He was watching her, unsmiling, leaning on the doorframe with arms crossed, one black-leather-shod foot angled across the other ankle.
A pirate, she thought fancifully. Or a brigand. With his raffish beard-growth and untameable hair he seemed not to belong in the twenty-first century.
She sat up straighter, the movement sending her hat sailing silently from its perch on her knee to the leaf-strewn floor of the summerhouse. "Are you following me?" she demanded.
Someone had told her once that she had a smoky note in her voice, although apart from a brief teenage fling with cigarettes she'd always been a non-smoker. For some reason, at this moment the slight huskiness was more marked than usual, and she wished she could start over, make the question sharp and clear.
It didn't appear to have impressed this man. The way a corner of his mouth twisted was almost a sneer. "Are you running from me?" he countered.
"Of course not. I don't even know you. Do I?" She supposed it was possible they'd met somewhere before—a long time ago in a land far away? Mentally she shook herself. The champagne must have gone to her head. She should have eaten some of the delicious-looking finger foods being offered.
The man answered, "You don't know me." His voice was velvet underlaid with gravel, dark and full of unspoken, sinful promise. He straightened, then swooped forward to pick up the hat that lay between them, holding it in his left hand as he introduced himself. "Jase Moore. Brother of the bride."
Samantha put down the empty champagne flute and stood, wanting to leave but she'd have had to step round him. Well-inculcated good manners made her offer her hand. "I'm Sa—"
"I know." Jase Moore didn't crush her bones as some men did, but his clasp was strong. "Samantha Magnussen, a very good friend of Bryn's."
She had always used a firm grip, but her fingers when his closed around them seemed about to melt. Releasing her, he said, "I wouldn't be the first man to follow you."
How could she answer that remark? From someone else it might have been an attempt at flirtation, but this man's blunt-force manner seemed to preclude anything as light and inconsequential as flirting.
A shiver ran through her, for no reason except that Jase Moore, although no longer touching her, was standing so close she could hear the quiet sound of his breathing, see the amazing length of his thick black lashes. The unfathomable green of his eyes looked darker here in the leafy shadows, the pupils enlarged. He was taller than she'd thought, his eye level higher than hers.
She stepped back, her legs coming up against the seat behind her. "Why did you?" she asked. "Follow me? It wasn't because…" because you like me. All too obviously he didn't. Although she still couldn't figure out why his dislike seemed to have such force, let alone why it had been so instant.
Realising it would sound like part of some playground tiff, she didn't finish the sentence.
He did it for her. "… because of the usual reason?" A sort of smile flashed briefly, more like a half-snarl. "No." He was blocking her way out of the small space that held them, his head tilted to one side while he inspected her. "Whatever your relationship might have been in the past with Bryn, it's over now. He's married to my sister, and that makes him off-limits to you or any other woman."
Samantha's cheeks burned. Humiliation and shock fed a searing, swift anger. "You don't know what you're talking about!" she said, but her voice shook and she knew she sounded less than convincing, appalled that he'd read her so easily and quickly.
"You do," he argued. "So watch your step, lady."