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Quinn Daniels finished his drink and signalled to the barman for another. His second Scotch would have to be his last for the evening, he was a keynote speaker at the weekend medical conference and his address was on tomorrow's agenda. He needed to keep a clear head.
He waited at the bar, keeping himself a little separate from the rest of the crowd. He let the conversations flow around him, not shutting them out but not totally absorbing them either. They were background noise as he let his attention wander over the room. The bar was in a conference room that was doing double duty as the cocktail reception area and the usual nondescript décor, seen in large hotels the world over, meant he could have been anywhere, but to Quinn's eyes it was the crowd that told him he was home. The room was only halffull but already there were more women in the space than he had seen for a long time. His gaze wandered, watching more out of habit than with any real purpose. He was still getting used to being in the company of women, women who weren't off limits.
After his second tour of duty in Afghanistan he was still acclimatising to Western life. The Scotch in his hand and the women in the crowd were only two of many differences. But it was enough to change the atmosphere. The sounds were different-the men's voices provided a bass accompaniment to the higher-pitched and slightly louder female voices, and the air smelt different too. It smelt of women-perfume and soap, hair-spray and make-up-and the room certainly looked different. In Afghanistan he and everyone else had spent most of their time in uniform. There weren't many occasions to dress up but tonight he was surrounded by men wearing suits and ties and women in cocktail dresses. There was plenty of black and a lot less khaki.
A splash of red caught his eye. In a room of predominantly dark colours the red dress burned like fire, casting a warm glow over everything nearby and drawing his eye. The dress was draped around the most beautiful woman he had seen in a very long time. The dress began over one smooth, tanned shoulder and wrapped across rounded breasts then pulled in firmly at the waist before flaring out and falling to her knees. Her arms were long and slender. So were her legs. She was showing far less skin than a lot of other women in the room but Quinn let his imagination picture what lay beneath the gauzy fabric. She wore her dark hair long and it flowed over her shoulders, gleaming as it reflected the light. Her lips were painted a glossy red to match her dress and the brightness of her mouth stood out in sharp contrast to her olive skin and raven hair. Her colouring was exotic, she was exquisite, and he wondered who she was.
She had paused in the doorway as she surveyed the room. He held his breath as he watched her, waiting to see if she found whoever it was she was looking for. He waited to see where she was heading.
She had perfect posture and a long, slender neck. She looked serene, elegant. Her head turned towards the bar as she scanned the room. Her eyes met his and Quinn felt his stomach and groin tighten as a burning arrow of desire shot through him.
Desire. It was an emotion he'd thought long forgotten and the strength of it took him by surprise. His heart rate increased as blood raced around his body, bringing him to life.
Did she hold his gaze for a second longer than necessary? He knew he wished it were true but as her gaze moved on he knew it was more than likely his imagination.
He waited, hoping she wouldn't find who she was looking for. Wishing she was looking for him.
She stepped into the room and moved gracefully across the floor. Her steps were smooth and effortless and she seemed to glide through the crowd. He couldn't stop watching. It wasn't a case of wanting a second look. He was unable to tear his eyes away and that made it impossible to look twice. He appreciated the beauty of a female form and hers was better than most. Far better. He knew he was staring but he couldn't stop.
She turned towards the bar. The bar was busy. It was early in the evening and people were still arriving and, for most, their first stop was the bar to fortify themselves as they prepared to mingle. He could see her looking for a spot to squeeze in. He moved a little to his left, creating a bigger space, a more obvious space, beside him as he willed her to accept his silent invitation. He hoped she would prefer to wait at the bar rather than in a queue.
He watched her gaze travel along the bar and find the gap. Saw her lift her eyes and felt his heartbeat quicken as her eyes met his again.
Her cherry-red lips parted in a smile, revealing perfect white teeth. His racing heart played leapfrog in his chest as her smile fanned the flames of desire still burning within him.
She took a few more steps, closing the distance between them, and slipped into the space beside him.
'Thank you.' Her voice was soft and sultry. It suited her. Her olive skin was smooth. Her grey eyes fringed by dark lashes. The colour of her eyes was unusual and not what he'd expected at all but it was her mouth that had him excited. Her lips were full, moist and red. Suddenly Quinn was very pleased to be home.
The bartender delivered his Scotch and he held up a hand, getting him to wait. 'May I also have ?' He looked to his left, offering to order.
'A gin and tonic, with a slice of lime, please.'
The top of her head reached just past his chin and he could smell her shampoo or maybe her perfume. It was sweet but not cloying and reminded him of the gardenia hedge that had grown under his bedroom window in his childhood home. The room around him melted into the background. The conversation around him faded and became nothing but subsidiary noise. There was nothing else that could capture his attention.
But he'd learnt the hard way not to let attraction outweigh reason. He was still paying the price for that lesson. Not that he regretted the lesson. He couldn't. That lesson had given him his daughters but there was no denying it had changed his life and now it was no longer his own. An occasional and very brief liaison was all he allowed himself now, just enough to satisfy a need but not long enough to allow any attachment. But it had been a long time since he'd felt desire.
Desire was dangerous. The way he felt right now he knew desire could outweigh reason. He knew he could lose himself in this woman.
Perhaps that would help to wipe away memories of Afghanistan. Perhaps it would help to bring him back to the present. He would still have the dreams but sex was always a good distraction. This woman might be the perfect solution. But sex to satisfy a need was one thing. Sex and desire was another combination altogether.
Ali had noticed him almost the moment she had entered the room. He had an interesting face but extraordinary eyes and it was his eyes that had made her look twice. He had maintained eye contact, almost daring her to look away first. And then he'd moved, just slightly, just enough to make space for her at the bar. Was it another challenge or was he being chivalrous? It didn't matter. She didn't want to linger alone, she didn't want to look out of place or conspicuous, so she was grateful for his silent offer. She hesitated, only ever so slightly, before his eyes convinced her to accept his offer. He had the bluest eyes she had ever seen, so bright their colour was clear from metres away. Hypnotic. Mesmerising. She felt as though he'd cast some sort of spell over her until her feet moved, almost of their own accord, and carried her across the room and she found herself beside him, accepting his offer of a drink.
He was watching her intently, almost as though he was committing her features to memory, but his attention didn't make her feel uncomfortable. It wasn't intrusive; somehow he made it feel like flattery.
His confidence was attractive. Her own confidence had been shaken of late and her pulse quickened as she met his eyes. A sense of excitement raced through her as she looked into his eyes, so blue they appeared to be made from azure Cellophane, illuminated from behind. They were intense, compelling, captivating and she was riveted. The external borders of his irises were a darker blue and the change in colour reminded her of a tropical sea as it deepened and darkened as it left the white sands of the shore.
He handed her a tall, cold glass, its contents garnished with lime. 'Will you let me keep you company while you wait for your friends?' he asked as she thanked him for the drink.
'How do you know I'm waiting?'
'I saw you arrive,' he replied. 'You looked like you were meeting people but you also looked like you were the first one here.'
Somehow in a room rapidly filling with people they'd seen each other at the same instant. She wouldn't call it fate, she had once been a big believer in fate, though she wasn't so certain any more, but even she had to admit there was a nice symmetry to this chance meeting. She smiled. 'One of my many bad habits, I confess. I'm always early.'
'I can't see how that's a bad thing.'
'It makes others feel guilty because they think they were late.'
'Well, I hope they take their time.' He smiled at her, bringing little laugh lines to the corners of his incredible blue eyes.
Was he flirting with her? She hoped so but she didn't completely trust her judgement.
He extended his hand. 'I'm Quinn Daniels.'
She knew who he was. Captain Quinn Daniels. She recognised his face, only from a photograph but that was enough. He was one of the conference keynote speakers. She planned to attend his session on infectious diseases and immunisation tomorrow. She knew from his short biography in the conference program that he was an army medic. An army captain. But the black and white head shot in the conference notes didn't do him justice.
He was six feet, maybe six feet one, of solid muscle. He looked fit. His shoulders were broad and his arms filled out the sleeves of his suit jacket. She could see the muscle definition of his deltoids and biceps under his jacket and his pectoral muscles were firm against his shirt.
He wasn't typically handsome; his face was broad, his blond hair cropped short, his jaw firm and clean-shaven, his chin strong. He was rugged rather than handsome but there was something about him that made it difficult for her to look away. It was more than just his eyes. It was something deeper, something powerful, something confident. He looked as though he could take care of himself and by association anyone else he chose to protect.
The bridge of his nose was slightly flattened, as if it had once been broken, but Ali sensed that if it had happened in a fight it had been the other guy who would have come off second best. But despite his size and the sense of strength she didn't get a feeling of menace. She got a feeling of raw masculinity but not danger. He might not back down from a fight but she got the sense he wouldn't start it. Although she was certain he would finish it. He wouldn't stand by and watch. He would go to help.
He seemed strong. Interesting. He made her feel brave. She put her hand into his. 'I'm Ali.'
His fingers closed around hers, his grip firm but gentle and sending an unexpected rush of excitement racing through her. She didn't want to let go, it had been a long time since she'd been excited about anything.
'It's a pleasure to meet you, Ali,' he said, and something in his tone made her believe he meant every word. 'You're a doctor?' he asked. She nodded in reply. She didn't think she could speak, not while he still had hold of her hand, her senses were overloaded. 'Are you Brisbane based?' he added as he released her hand.
Ali shook her head and found her voice. 'No, I'm from Adelaide.' 'Ah, I should have known.' 'Why?'
'South Australia has more than her fair share of beautiful women.'
He was definitely flirting.
'Have you been to Adelaide?' she asked, hoping that he had a legitimate reason for his flirtatious comment and that he wasn't just spouting platitudes.
'Many times,' he replied. 'Do you like living there?'
'I do.' Ali nodded. She loved her home town and although many of her friends had moved interstate she had never thought she'd prefer to live elsewhere. 'But I must admit the opportunity to escape our winter and head north for some sunshine and the conference was too much for me to resist. I'm looking forward to hearing your address tomorrow.'
Quinn smiled. 'You're attending my session? You're not going to ditch me in favour of lying by the pool and working on your tan?'
'I try not to play hookey until the second day,' she quipped before she sipped her drink, conscious of the fact she was flirting in return but surprisingly without apprehension.
His phone rang, interrupting the flow of their conversation. He pulled it from his pocket and glanced at the screen. 'Would you excuse me? I need to take this.'
She watched as he took two steps away from the bar. She wondered who it was. Wondered who had the power to make him search for privacy.
He paused and turned to face her again. 'I'll be back,' he said, before leaving her to watch him walk away. As he left he took with him the air of excitement she'd experienced and the evening dimmed a little. She wondered if he would be back. She had no way of knowing.