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Ammar Tannous scanned the crowded ballroom of the Parisian hotel with a coldly dispassionate air, his mouth a compressed line. Somewhere amidst this glittering throng his wife waited. Although waited, he acknowledged, was the wrong word; Noelle had no idea he was here. She might not even know he was alive.
He narrowed his eyes as he shouldered his way through the crowd, noting the way conversations sputtered into silence, followed by the hiss of surprised speculation. The newspapers, he knew, had carried the story of his miraculous escape from a helicopter crash two months ago, although he hadn't been front page news. He never was. Ammar always kept a low profile; working for Tannous Enterprises required he maintain an intense privacy. Still, some here recognised him.
'Mr Tannous ' A thin, nervous man approached him, looking, Ammar saw, not just nervous but scared out of his wits. Ammar tried to place the face, but he had done business with too many people to recall every frightened underling who had experienced the punishing power of Tannous Enterprises's fist. 'I was going to make an appointment..' the man stammered, fluttering his hands in apology. 'Once I heard the news..
The news that he was alive. Not very good news for most people, Ammar knew. Now he remembered the man, if not his name. He had a small clothing factory outside Paris and Ammar's father had become lien-holder. He'd called in the loan just before his death in an attempt to bankrupt the man and cease his paltry competition with Tannous's own interests.
'I'm not here about that,' Ammar said tersely. 'If you wish to make an appointment, call my office.'
'Yes of course '
Without another word Ammar moved past him. He could have assured the man he wasn't going to enforce his father's claim, but the words stuck in his throat. In any case, he didn't want rumours to start flying, or his business associates and allies to wonder or worry.
All he wanted was Noelle.
It had been her face, the memory of her smile that had driven his survival. When he'd been starving and dying of thirst, wounded and feverish, he'd longed for her. He might not have seen her in a decade, he might have sent her away only months after they'd married, but he intended to find her now and finally claim her as his wife.
His expression grimmer than ever before, Ammar moved forward through the crowd.
'Someone is looking for you, and he seems rather ferocious.'
Noelle Ducasse turned at the sound of her friend Amelie's voice, a smile firmly curving her lips, her flute of champagne held aloft. 'Oh, really? Should I start quivering?'
'Perhaps.' Amelie took a sip of her own drink as she surveyed the crowd. 'He's about six foot four with a near-shaven head and a horrible scar on his face. The whole look is rather sexy, mind you, but also a bit fearsome.' Amelie raised her elegantly plucked eyebrows, clearly curious. 'Does that description ring a bell?'
'Not really.' Noelle gave her friend, always prone to exaggeration, a bemused look. 'He sounds like an ex-convict.'
'Maybe. Although his tuxedo is top of the line.'
'Intriguing.' Although she wasn't particularly intrigued. Paris's social scene was always buzzing. 'My feet are killing me,' she said as she deposited her half-empty glass of champagne on a tray held by one of the many circulating waiters. 'I might call it a night.'
'I knew those heels would murder you.' Amelie spoke with gleeful satisfaction; she'd wanted to wear the five-inch silver stilettos that had been seen on the catwalk at Paris's Autumn/Winter Fashion Week last March. Arche, the highend department store they both worked for as assistant buyers, would sell them exclusively this autumn.
Noelle shrugged philosophically. 'All part of the job.' Arche liked to have its junior buyers out and about in Paris's social scene, modelling Arche fashions and looking glamorous. After five years, Noelle was tired of playing at being a pretty young thing, but she knew it was all about paying her dues. In another few months she'd be up for a promotion to senior buyer of women's wear, instead of focusing just on shoes and accessories.
'You can't leave yet,' Amelie protested with a pout, 'it's only eleven.'
'And I have work tomorrow. As do you, I might add.'
'What about your ferocious admirer?'
'He'll just have to admire from afar.' A flicker of curiosity rippled through hera shaven head and a scar? Really? In this crowd of preening socialites it seemed unlikely. Still, all she wanted now was her bed and a hot drink. And a good book. Her scary suitor would have to live with disappointment.
She waved her farewell to Amelie, who had already moved on to the next crowd of social-climbers. Standing alone amidst the circulating crowd, Noelle suddenly experienced a sharp pang of loneliness, the kind she'd tried not to let herself feel in the ten years since she'd walked out on her marriage and rebuilt her lifea life she'd chosen, even if it bore no resemblance to the kind of life she'd expected to have. She liked Amelie and all of her other friends, but they weren't kindred spirits. Soulmates. But then she'd given up on that idea long ago.
Sighing, she pushed any recriminations, as well as that irritating pang of loneliness, to the back of her mind. She just wanted to go home. In bed with a book and a hot drink she'd feel better. And at least she'd be able to shed these ridiculous shoes.
It took her a quarter of an hour to work her way through the crowd, knowing she needed to stop to smile or chat with various guests. She'd just reached the deserted foyer of the hotel when she heard a voice behind her.
'I almost didn't recognise you.'
Noelle froze. She didn't have to turn around to know who was speaking to her. She hadn't heard that low, rumbling growl of a voice in ten years. He still, she acknowledged distantly, spoke with the cautious reserve of a man who chose his words with care and didn't say many of them.
Slowly she turned around and faced her former husband. The first sight of him in the shadowy foyer jolted her to the core. His hair was cut close, almost a buzz-cut. A long, livid scar of puckered reddened flesh bisected his right cheek, starting in his hairline and snaking all the way down to his jaw. He was, she knew then, the ferocious admirer Amelie had told her about. Ammar. She should have considered such a thing, she supposed, although in truth she'd never have expected Ammar to be looking for her. He'd never looked for her before.
'And I almost didn't recognise you,' she said, keeping her voice crisp even though her knees were near to buckling just at the sight of him. He seemed taller and darker and bigger than before, although that was surely an illusion. She'd just forgotten the effect his presence had on her, the way he held himself so still and yet with such authority. The way his mouth thinned and his eyes narrowedso different from the man she'd thought she knew. The man she'd fallen in love with. She gave him as level a look as she could. 'What do you want, Ammar?'
Her heart thudded hard in reaction to that simple statement. She'd asked him once before what he'd wanted, if he wanted her. Then the answer had been a resounding and devastating no. Even now, ten years later, the memory made her burn with painful humiliation, the remnants of the utter heartbreak she'd felt at the time. 'How interesting,' she said coolly, 'considering we haven't even spoken in a decade.'
'I must talk with you, Noelle.'
She shook her head, hating how autocratic he sounded. Still. 'We have nothing to say to each other.'
He kept his gaze steady on hers, solemn and fierce. 'I have something to say to you.'
She felt a sudden, hot clutch of emotion in her chest, a burning behind her lids. Ammar. She'd loved him so much, so long ago. She hated that she felt even a remnant of it now. And whatever he wanted to say to her well, she didn't want to hear it. She'd opened herself up to him once before. She would not do so again.
He stepped closer, and she saw how gaunt he looked.
He was powerfully built, every limb corded with muscle, yet clearly he'd lost a significant amount of weight.
'You heard about my accident,' he said, and she realised she'd been staring at him quite openly.
'Yes. My father told me. And about your miraculous rescue.'
'You don't sound particularly pleased that I survived.'
'On the contrary, Ammar, I was glad. No matter what happened between us, I've never wished you ill.' For too long she'd wanted him back. But she wasn't about to succumb to that ridiculous temptation now, not even for a moment. 'I'm sorry for your loss,' she said stiffly. 'Your father.' Ammar just shrugged.
Noelle stared at him, wondering just how he had come to this moment. She knew the bare facts: two months ago her father had rung to say Ammar had been killed in a helicopter crash, along with his father. He hadn't wanted her to find out through the media, and while Noelle had been grateful for that she hadn't even known how to react. Anger? Sorrow? It had been ten years since their marriage had been annulled, and even longer since she'd seen him, yet the pain of their failed relationship had hurt her for years.
Mostly she'd just felt numb, and then as the weeks had passed she'd probed the dark tangle of emotions underneath that comforting numbness and found the main feeling in that confusing welter was regret, a sense of loss for what she'd once believed they could have had together, the happiness that had been stolen away with such sudden cruelty.
Then a few weeks ago her father had rung again, told her Ammar was alive. He'd been rescued from a deserted island by a few men in a fishing boat and was returning to lead his father's business, Tannous Enterprises. The regret Noelle was just coming to terms with suddenly solidified into the still-raw anger she'd been nursing all along. Damn Ammar. Damn him for breaking her heart, for rejecting her all those years ago and, most of all, for coming back now to stir up the painful emotions she thought she'd buried.
Now she pushed it all down and gave him a steely glare. 'Like I said, we have nothing to say to each other.' With her head held high she pushed past him.
Ammar reached for her arm. His fingers circled around her wrist, the heat of him seeming to sear her skin. Noelle stiffened, knowing he was too strong for her to attempt to pull away.
'It appears I have no choice.'
Ammar let out a rush of breath. 'I just want to talk.'
'Then start speaking, because you have thirty seconds before I make a serious scene.' She glanced pointedly at the lean brown fingers still encircling her wrist. 'And I'd rather not have a bruise.'
Ammar dropped her wrist so suddenly her arm fell back against her side. She felt as if she should bear a mark from where he'd touched her, a painful red weal, but there was nothing. 'It will take more than thirty seconds,' he said tersely. 'And I have no intention of conducting a conversation in the foyer of a hotel.'
'And I have no intention of going anywhere with you.'
Ammar said nothing, just studied her, his head cocked, his narrowed amber gaze surveying her from top to toe. 'You're angry,' he finally said, an observation, and she let out a quick, humourless laugh. The last time she'd seen him she'd been crouching on the bed in his hotel room, holding back sobs, wearing only her underwear. He'd told her, very coldly, to leave. Yet even as that memory made her insides writhe, she quickly dismissed it. Ancient history.
She wasn't angry; at least, she shouldn't be. She definitely shouldn't still feel this hot rush of bitterness and hurt.
What she should have done tonight, she saw now, was acted coolly, politely indifferent. Maybe even reservedly friendly. She should have treated Ammar as an acquaintance, not the man who had broken her heart and crushed it under his heel. She never should have shown how much she still cared.
Because she didn't.
'I'm not angry,' she lied. 'But neither do I see any point in conversing with you.'
'You don't,' Ammar asked, the words seeming to scrape his throat, 'have any interest at all in what I might want to say?'
She stared at him, saw his mouth was twisted with bitterness, or maybe even sorrow. He looked different, and it wasn't just the scar or near-shaven head. It was something that emanated from his very self, from the hard set of his shoulders to the deep shadows under his amber eyes to the twisted curve of his mouth. He looked like a man who had endured far too much, who was near to breaking from it all.
For a breathless moment she felt that old savage twist of longing lying latent beneath the knee-jerk reaction of anger. She had the bizarre and yet achingly familiar urge to comfort him, to make him smile. To listen, and to understand
No. Ammar Tannous had appealed to her curiosity and compassion before. She'd fallen in love with him, or what she thought she knew of him, and then he'd gone and hadn't just broken her heart but shattered her whole existence. It had taken yearsyearsto build up this new life, this new Noelle. She wasn't always sure if she liked what she'd made, who she'd become, but at least she owned it. She owned herself; she was strong, focused, needing no one. And a few minutes' conversation would never change that. She wouldn't let it.
'Go to hell, Ammar,' she said and walked past him, stumbling once in her ridiculous stilettos before she righted herself and stalked out into the night.
Ammar stared after Noelle's retreating backso straight and rigidand felt a pulse of fury beat in his blood. How could she walk away from him like that? She hadn't given him more than two minutes of her time, and all he'd wanted to do was talk
And tell her, his mind mocked, what, exactly? He'd never been good with words, hated talking about emotions. Yet since the crash he'd known he needed Noelle back in his life. From the moment he'd regained consciousness, alone and injured on a tiny slice of deserted beach, he'd thought of her. He'd remembered her playful smile, the way she tilted her head to one side as she listened to himnot that he ever said much. As he'd battled fever he'd dreamed of her, the soft slide of her lips, her husky murmur of assent as she tangled her hands in his hair and pressed against him. He had even, incredibly, imagined sliding himself into her warmth and feeling her close around him, joyfully accepting the union of their bodies. That certainly belonged only in his delirium, for making love with Noelle was a pleasure he had never known.
And at this rate never would.
Ammar cursed aloud.
He'd handled their meeting badly, he saw that now. He shouldn't have cornered her, made demands. Yet what else could he have done? He was a man of action and authority. He didn't mince words. Most times he didn't even say please.