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'But you don't understand. I'm meeting someone here.'
As the sound of the girl's voice, husky with desperation, reached him across the room, Caz Brandon turned from the group he was chatting to at the bar, and looked towards the door, his dark brows raised in faint annoyance. Only to find his irritation changing in a flash to interest as he surveyed the newcomer.
In her early to mid-twenties, he judged, medium height, slim, and rather more than attractive, with a mass of auburn hair falling in gleaming waves past her shoulders. Wearing the ubiquitous little black dress, sleeveless and scoop-necked, like many of the other female guests, but setting her own stamp upon it with the slender skirt split almost to mid-thigh, revealing a black velvet garter set with crystals a few inches above her knee.
An intriguing touch, Caz decided with frank appreciation. And one that offered grounds for speculation. Although, admittedly, this was hardly the time or the place to let his thoughts wander, however agreeably, when he was entertaining the European and Southern hemisphere editors who worked for his company, prior to the strategy meetings which would begin in the morning.
'I'm afraid this is a private function, madam, and your name is not on the list.' Jeff Stratton, who was handling security for the reception, spoke quietly but firmly.
'But I was invited.' She took a card from her evening purse. 'By this manPhil Hanson. Look, he even wrote the place and the time for me to meet him on the back. If you'll just get him, he'll confirm what I say.'
Jeff shook his head. 'Unfortunately there is no Mr Hanson listed among those attending. I'm afraid someone may have been having a joke with you. However, I regret that I must still ask you to leave.'
'But he must be here.' There was real distress in her voice. 'He said he could get me a job with the Brandon Organisation. It's the only reason I agreed to come.'
Caz winced inwardly. The situation seemed to be morphing from a simple security glitch into a public relations problem. If someone had been making free with his company's name in order to play an unpleasant trick on this girl, he could hardly shrug and turn away. It had to be dealt with, and he, rather than Angus, who headed his PR team, was the one on the spot.
He excused himself smilingly to the rest of the group and walked purposefully across the room.
'Good evening,' he said. 'Miss ?' And paused interrogatively.
'Desmond,' she said, with a slight catch of the breath. 'Tarn Desmond.'
Seen at close hand, she was even lovelier than Caz had first thought, her green eyes over-bright as if tears were not too far away, and her creamy skin flushed with embarrassment. While her hair had the sheen of silk.
'And whom did you come here to meet?' he prompted gently. 'A Mr Hanson, you said? Did he claim a connection with the Brandon Organisation?'
She nodded. 'He said he worked for a Rob Wellington in Personnel. That he'd introduce me to him.'
Caz swore under his breath. This was getting worse all the time. He sent a silent signal to Jeff who melted unobtrusively away.
'I'm afraid we have no employee called Hanson.' He paused. 'How well do you know this man?'
She bit her lip. 'Not very. I met him at a party a few nights ago. We got talking and I mentioned I was looking for a job. He said he might be able to help, and gave me this card.' She added with faint weariness, 'He seemednice.'
Caz gave the card a brief glance. It was a cheap mass-produced thing, with the name Philip Hanson printed in ostentatiously flowing letters, but no other information, not even a mobile phone number. But the time and place of this reception was written quite unmistakably in capitals on the back.
The deception was quite deliberate, he thought, if inexplicable. Tarn Desmond had been sent here.
He said easily, 'Well, this is an awkward situation, Miss Desmond, but it doesn't have to become a crisis. I'm sincerely sorry that you should have been misled like this but there's no need for us to add to your disappointment.'
He paused again. 'You must allow me to make amends. May I get you a drink?'
She hesitated, then shook her head. 'Thank you, but it might be better if I did as your Rottweiler askedand simply left.'
Infinitely better, Caz thought wryly, at the same time aware of his own reluctance to see her go.
'But not totally empty-handed, I hope,' he said. 'If you want to work for the Brandon Organisation, why not contact Rob Wellington through the usual channels and see what's available?' He smiled at her, noting the beguiling fullness of her lower lip, and heard himself add, 'I'll make sure he's expecting to hear from you.'
The look that reached him from beneath the long, darkened lashes was frankly sceptical. Clearly, she didn't want to be made a fool of a second time, and who could blame her?
'Wellthank you again,' she said, and turned away. As she did so, a breath of the scent she wore reached himsoft, musky and sexy as hell, he decided as his senses stirred. And he was treated to another glimpse of the glittering crystals on that garter as she departed.
If she'd come here to make an impression, it had certainly worked on one level, he thought ruefully as he returned to the bar. But she would need better credentials than that to convince his Head of Personnel that she deserved a place in the company. Rob was in his forties, happily married, and quite impervious to the charms of other women, however young and alluring.
As for himself, thirty-four and conspicuously single, he needed to put the delectable Miss Desmond out of his mind, and get back to the serious business of the evening.
But that, he discovered, was not as easy as he thought. Like her perfume, she seemed to be lingering on the edge of his consciousness long after the reception was over, and he was back in his penthouse apartment, alone, with all the time in the world to think. And remember her.
Tarn walked into the flat, closed the door and leaned against it for a moment, eyes closed as she steadied her breathing, before crossing the hall to the living room.
Della, who owned the flat, was sitting on the floor absorbed in painting her toenails, but she glanced up at Tarn's entry, her expression enquiring and anxious. 'How did it go?'
'Like a breeze.' Tarn kicked off her high-heeled sandals and collapsed into a chair. 'Dell, I couldn't believe my luck. He was right there in the bar. I saw him as soon as I went in.'
She grinned exultantly. 'I didn't even have to get past security and go looking. And he was across almost as soon as I went into my spiel, oozing charm and concern. He swallowed every word, and wanted more. It was almost too easy.'
She took the card from her bag and tore it up. 'Goodbye, Mr Hanson, my imaginary acquaintance. You've been a great help, and well worth the effort of getting this printed.'
She looked back at Della. 'And thanks for the loan of the dress and this pretty thing.' She slipped off the garter and twirled it round her finger. 'It certainly hit the target.'
'Hmm.' Della pulled a face. 'I suppose I should congratulate you, but I still feel more like screaming "Don't do it".' She replaced the cap on her nail polish, and looked gravely up at her friend. 'It's not too late. You could still pull out and no harm done.'
'No harm?' Tarn sat up sharply. 'How can you say that? When Evie's in that dreadful place, with her whole life de-stroyedand all because of him.'
'You're being a bit hard on The Refuge,' Della objected mildly. 'It has a tremendous reputation for dealing with all kinds of addictions as well as mental problems, so it's hardly a dreadful place. It's also very expensive,' she went on thoughtfully. 'So I'm surprised Mrs Griffiths can afford to keep her there.'
'Apparently they're obliged to take a quota of National Health patients as well.' Tarn paused. 'And don't look so sceptical. Chameleon may have earned me a lot of money over the past few years, but not nearly enough to fund Evie at a top private clinic. I swear I'm not paying her fees.'
She drew a shuddering breath. 'When I came back and saw her there, realised the state she was in, I swore I'd make him pay for what he's done, and I shall, no matter how long it takes, or what the cost,' she concluded fiercely.
'Well, that's precisely it. You see, I was thinking of a totally different kind of harm,' Della returned, unperturbed. 'The potential cost to you.'
'What are you talking about?' Tarn was instantly defensive.
Della shrugged. 'I mean that when push comes to shove, you may not find it so simple to deliver the death blow and walk away, leaving the dagger in his back. Because you lack the killer instinct, my pet. Unlike, I've always thought, the eternally fragile Evie.'
She allowed that to sink in, then continued, 'For heaven's sake, Tarn, I know you're grateful to the Griffiths family for all they've done for you, but surely you've repaid them over and over again, financially and in every other way. Do you still have to come galloping to the rescue each time there's a problem? Surely there's a moment to say"Halt, that's enough," and this could be it. For one thing, what about your career? Yes, the kind of work you do requires you to seem invisible. But you shouldn't actually become so in real life. You can't afford it. Have you thought of that?'
'I always take a break between projects,' Tarn returned. 'And by the time negotiations have been completed on the next deal, this will all be over, and I'll be back in harness.'
She looked down at her hands, clasped in her lap. 'Besides, I promised Uncle Frank before he died that I'd look after Aunt Hazel and Evie, just as he always looked after me. As I've told you, they only decided to become foster parents because they thought they couldn't have children of their own. Then, when Evie was born, they could have asked Social Services to take me away.'
She sighed. 'But they didn't, and I'm sure that was his doing rather than Aunt Hazel's. I was never the pretty docile little doll she'd always wanted. That became abundantly clear as I grew up. But I couldn't blame her. Looking back, I probably gave her a very hard time.
'But losing Uncle Frank knocked them both sideways. They were like boats drifting on the tide, and they needed an anchor. I can't ignore them when they need help.'
'Well, if Evie reckoned on Caz Brandon becoming the family anchor in your place, she gravely miscalculated,' Della said with a touch of grimness. 'He isn't a man for serious relationships with women. In fact, he's famous for it, as you'd know if you hadn't been working abroad so much, and only back for flying visits. Evie, on the other hand, has been right here all the time, and should have been well aware that he's not the marrying kind.'
She hesitated. 'I'm playing devil's advocate here, but is it possible she may simply havemisunderstood his intentions?'
There was a silence, then Tarn said huskily, 'If so, it was because he meant her to do so. That's the unforgivable thing. Delshe's really suffering. She trusted that bastard, believed every lie he told her.' She shook her head.
'She may well have been incredibly naive, but I've seen him in action now, and he's quite a piece of work. The arch-predator of the western world on the look-out for another victim.'
She gave a harsh laugh. 'My God, he even asked me to have a drink with him.'
'Which you naturally declined.'
'Yes, of course. It's much too soon for that.' Tarn's lips tightened. 'He's going to find out just what it's like to be strung along endlessly and then discarded like a piece of trash.'
'Well, for God's sake, be careful.' Della got to her feet. 'Caz Brandon may like to love them and leave them, but he's no fool. Don't forget he inherited a struggling publishing company seven years ago and has turned it into an international success.'
'The bigger they are,' said Tarn, 'the harder they fall. And his business achievements don't necessarily make him a decent human being. He needs to be taught that you can't simply take what you want and walk away. That eventually there's a price to be paid. And I intend to teach him precisely that.' She added tautly, 'For Evie's sake.'
'Then all I can say israther you than me,' said Della. 'And now I'm going to make some coffee.'
Left to herself, Tarn sank back against the cushions, trying to relax. She didn't really need coffee, she thought. She was hyped up quite enough as it was, the adrenalin still surging through her. And this was only the first stage of her plan.
The next big hurdle, of course, would be getting a job at the Brandon Organisation. This evening was a walk in the park compared with that.
But you can do it, she told herself robustly. There's a lot riding on thisthe total and very public humiliation of Caz Brandon. In some way.
For a moment, the image of him filled her mind as completely as if he was standing there in front of her. Tall, broad-shouldered and elegant to his fingertips in his dinner jacket and black tie, his dark hair combed back from a lean incisive face. Hazel eyes, long-lashed under straight brows, a firm-lipped mouth, the nose and chin strongly marked.
Oh, yes, she thought savagely. She could see why Evie had fallen for him so far and so fast. With very little effort, he could probably beirresistible.
And she gave a sudden shiver.
She'd been in New York when Aunt Hazel's call had come, she recalled later that night, when sleep remained curiously elusive.