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He sauntered through the well-dressed crowd, bestowing his lazy smile on those who gushed their congratulations. Tall and powerfully built, he'd been ogled by half the women he'd passed. He, in turn, seemed uninterested in the stir he created as he charmed his way through the two hundred guests assembled for the premier wine auction.
As he scanned the room like a secret service agent, only his penetrating eyes gave away the fact that he wasn't as relaxed as he appeared.
Most people wouldn't have noticed Roark Black was on edge. Most people didn't have super-sensitive radar for the dangerous types.
Elizabeth Minerva did.
"The shrimp is running out!"
Jolted out of her ruminating by Brenda Stuart, her quick-to-panic "assistant" on this event, Elizabeth ripped her gaze away from the handsome adventurer and skimmed damp palms from her waist to her hips.
"I just checked and there's plenty of shrimp left," Elizabeth told Brenda. Annoyance with herself fed her impatient tone. There was also plenty of champagne and canapes and a dozen other things Brenda had fussed about in the last hour. "Why don't you make yourself a plate and go relax in the back?"
Anything to get rid of the former wedding planner to the middle class. Josie Summers, Elizabeth's boss, had saddled her with Brenda because as always Josie had underestimated what Elizabeth could handle. It was the woman's second event as Elizabeth's second in command, and rubbing elbows with Manhattan's rich and famous was spotlighting exactly why Brenda wasn't ready to be here. Instead of projecting a confident, capable vibe as she moved invisibly through the party, Elizabeth's assistant had badgered a server in front of Bunny Cromwell, one of the city's most prolific hostesses, and scolded a bartender for not making a city councilman's drink properly.
"I can't relax," Brenda exclaimed, her sharp tone catching the attention of two nearby guests. The women exchanged disgusted expressions. "And you shouldn't either."
Plastering on a serene smile, Elizabeth seized Brenda's arm above the elbow, fingers pinching ever so delicately. "I've got everything under control here. The auction will be starting in a half an hour. Why don't you head home?"
"I can't." Brenda resisted Elizabeth's grip as she was hauled toward the screens set up at one end of the enormous loft space to conceal the food prep area from the party-goers.
"Sure, you can." Elizabeth used her soothing voice as she marched the older woman away from the party. "You've put in so many hours this week. You deserve to get out of here. I can handle the rest."
"If you're sure."
As if Elizabeth hadn't handled larger parties in the three years since she'd graduated from college and taken a job with Josie Summers's Event Planning. Granted, this was Elizabeth's first A-list crowd. The first event that had given her butterflies before the guests arrived and began to murmur their approval over the way she'd transformed a dull, empty loft space into a sophisticated, elegant venue.
"I'm positive," Elizabeth said. "Go home and tuck your beautiful daughter into bed."
It was well past ten and Brenda's six-year-old daughter was probably already fast asleep, but Elizabeth had figured out the first day she'd worked with the woman that everything Brenda did was for her little girl. It was the only thing about the woman Elizabeth liked. And envied.
Elizabeth waited until Brenda had gathered her purse and disappeared down the long hallway toward the elevator before she headed back to the party.
She'd almost managed to forget about Roark Black in the ten minutes she'd been dealing with Brenda, but here he was, less than five feet away, leaning his broad shoulder against one of the two-foot-wide columns that supported the ceiling.
Damn. Up close the energy of the man was astonishing. He practically oozed lusty masculinity and danger. He'd forgone the traditional bow tie with his tux and left the top buttons undone on his white shirt. Rakish and sexy, he set her pulse to purring.
You swore off bad boys forever, remember?
And Roark Black was as bad a bad boy as they got. Even his name gave her the shivers.
Yet earlier, there she'd stood, daydreaming about what it would be like to slide her fingers through his thick wavy hair. Brown in color, the shade reminded her of her great aunt's sheared beaver coat. She'd loved the sensual drag of the soft fur against her bare skin.
"Can I get you something?" she asked.
One side of his mouth lifted. "I thought you'd never ask."
His tone invited her to smile at his flirting. His eyes dared her to strip off her black dress and give him a glimpse of what lay beneath.
She swallowed hard. "Is there something you need?" The second the question passed her lips, she wished it back. Was she trying to play into his hands?
"Elizabeth." She shoved out her hand all professional like. "Elizabeth Minerva. I'm your event planner."
She expected him to take her hand in a bone-crushing grip. Instead, he cupped it, turned her palm upward and dragged his left forefinger down the middle of it. Her body went on full alert like a state penitentiary with a missing prisoner.
"Roark." He peered at her palm, the skin glazed blue by the indirect lighting that illuminated the space. "Roark Black. You have a very curvy " His attention shifted and the next thing Elizabeth knew, she was drowning in his penetrating gaze. "Head line."
"A what?" Her dry mouth prevented anything more from emerging.
"Head line." His fingertip retraced its invigorating journey across her palm. "See here. A curvy head line means you like to play with new ideas. Do you, Elizabeth?"
"Do I what?" The air in the loft had grown thin in the last sixty seconds. Light-headed, she was having trouble getting enough oxygen.
"Do you like playing with new ideas?"
Bad boy. Bad boy.
Elizabeth cleared her throat and retrieved her hand in a short jerk that made Roark's crooked smile widen and heat rush to her face.
"I like creating unique party spaces, if that's what you mean."
It wasn't. His smirk told her so.
"I like what you've done with the place."
More comfortable talking about her job than herself, Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest and surveyed all she'd accomplished in the past twenty-four hours.
"There wasn't much to it when I got started. Just a concrete floor and white walls. And those incredible arched windows with that spectacular view." She pointed out the latter, hoping to steer his unnerving stare away from her.
"I heard you came up with the idea of a slide show to honor Tyler."
Tyler Banks had died the year before. A thoroughly disliked human being, no one had any idea that he'd been behind twenty percent of all major New York City charitable donations in the past decade.
"While he was alive, he might not have wanted anyone to know all the wonderful things he'd done, but so many people were helped by his generosity. I thought he deserved a proper tribute."
"Beautiful and smart." His eyes devoured her. "Okay, I'm hooked."
And so was she. Naturally. Bad boys were the bane of her romantic existence. The worse they were, the more she wanted them.
From everything she'd heard and read about Roark Black, she'd expected him to be an arrogant, unprincipled jerk. Gorgeous and sexy, to be sure, but with questionable ethics. The sort of guy she'd have tumbled head over high heels for a year ago.
But after what had happened with Colton last October, she'd sworn on her sister's grave that she was done with all bad boys.
Unfortunately, since those seemed to be the only sort that tripped her trigger, her love life had been in sad shape these past twelve months. Which explained why her hormones had jerked to attention the instant Roark strolled into the party.
"I suggest you get unhooked, Mr. Black," she said, hoping her tart voice would counteract her sweet, gooey insides. Honestly, it was embarrassing to let a man, even a sexy, gorgeous one, turn her into a marshmallow.
"You don't like me?" He didn't appear particularly concerned that she didn't. In fact, he seemed as if he might just relish the challenge.
"I don't know you."
"But you've formed an opinion. How is that fair?"
Fair? He wanted to play fair? She didn't believe that for a second. In fact, she suspected if she gave him the slightest encouragement, she'd find herself in a bathroom with her hem above her ears.
To her dismay a tingle erupted between her thighs. Annoyance added more heat to her next statement than she intended. "I've read things."
"What sort of things?"
He was the reason this party was happening. If he hadn't talked Tyler's granddaughter into letting Waverly's auction off the rarest of Tyler's vast wine collection, there would have been no reason for this event and she would not have been selected as the planner.
All at once she wished she'd just kept her mouth shut. The man was too confident. His personality too strong. And she'd overstepped her role as event planner the second she'd let him engage her. "Things."
Bold, dark eyebrows twitched above keen green-gray eyes. "Oh, don't get all coy with me after throwing down the gauntlet."
No one had ever accused her of being coy before. "Look, it's none of my business, and I really need to make sure everything is all right with the party."
He moved to block her path. "Not before you answer my question."
At six feet three inches, he was a big barrier as he crowded her against the concrete pillar that had hidden their encounter from the prying eyes of the rest of the guests. To Elizabeth's dismay, her body reacted positively to his intimidating size. Lightning flashed in her midsection and zinged along her nerves, leaving a disquieting buzz in its wake.
"You have an opinion." He placed a hand on the column above her shoulder. "I'd like to hear it."
"I don't understand why."
From what she'd heard about him, he didn't really care what anyone thought. Or said. He did his thing and to hell with the rules or what was proper. And to the detriment of her anti-bad-boy pledge, his absolute confidence excited her.
"Let's just say you're the first woman in a long time that's not just playing hard to get. I believe you mean it." He leaned closer. "I'd like to know why."
Rattled by the way his nearness affected her heart rate, she blurt out, "Waverly's is in trouble. If it goes down, you could be the biggest reason why." Mortified by what she'd just said, Elizabeth held her breath and waited for the fallout.
"And where did you read that?" He looked neither surprised nor annoyed with her blunt proclamation.
"I'm sorry," she muttered. "It's none of my business. I should be getting back to the party."
"Not so fast." He surveyed her through narrowed eyes. His charm had vanished. Mouth tight, every tense muscle promising dire consequences if she denied him, he said, "I think you owe me an explanation."
"I spoke out of turn."
"But with a fair amount of knowledge." The dashing man of adventure had given way to a flint-eyed hunter.
Elizabeth quivered, but not in fear. The reckless part of her she'd worked so hard to refine responded to Roark's dangerous vibe. "Look"
Before she had to explain herself, she was saved by the appearance of Kendra Darling, Elizabeth's old school friend and assistant to Ann Richardson, CEO of Waverly's.
"Mr. Black, Ann sent me to find you."
"Can it wait? Elizabeth and I were having a little chat."
Behind her tortoise-shell glasses, Kendra's large hazel eyes widened as she recognized whom Roark had cornered with his charismatic presence. "It's important," she said. "Some men showed up to talk to you." Kendra's slim body practically quivered with anxiety as she clasped her hands at her waist. "They're with the FBI."
Teeth clenched in irritation, Roark pushed away from Elizabeth and nodded to Ann's flustered assistant. "Tell her I'll be there in a couple of minutes."
"I think she'd like you to come right now."
In other words, the assistant didn't want to return without him. She was used to dealing with wealthy, sometimes difficult clients, not law enforcement. Otherwise she'd know that the FBI liked to chat with him whenever something questionable happened with Middle Eastern antiquities. He'd been both the subject of inquiries and the expert that helped them take down the thieves.
Before heading back to the party, Roark gave Elizabeth one last look. The stunning blonde hadn't moved during his brief exchange with Ann's assistant. In fact, she looked as if she'd like to melt right into the concrete support behind her.
He considered how many times he'd held a relic in his hands and immediately known whether the artifact was genuine or an excellent forgery. His gut had never been wrong, and he'd backed up every authentication with careful, detailed analysis.
This encounter with Elizabeth had hit him the same way. He'd held her hand in his and recognized she was the genuine article. No artifice. No games. Pure attraction. And he intended to have her.
"We'll continue this conversation later," he assured her. Her eyes said: don't count on it.
He strode away from the petite event planner with the lush figure and unforgettable indigo eyes and made a beeline toward the two obvious outsiders bracketing Ann. Unlike her assistant, Waverly's CEO wasn't in the least bit flustered that FBI agents had crashed the party. Her calm under pressure was one of the things Roark liked most about the head of Waverly's.
Her gaze locked on him as he neared. Eyes hard, she offered him a neutral smile. "Roark, these are Special Agents Matthews and Todd. They would like to ask us a few questions in private."
Roark eyed each in turn, recognizing Todd as an agent he'd seen in passing, but had never had any direct interaction with. Agent Matthews was brand-new. Tall and lean with black hair that spilled over her shoulders in abundant waves. Her dark brown eyes had tracked his progress across the room toward them, and Roark knew this one looked at him and thought career advancement.
"We can speak out on the terrace." Whipping off his tuxedo jacket, he draped it over Ann's shoulders as they headed to the door that led out onto a small outdoor space. Elizabeth's deft touch could be seen here, as well. With white lights tangled in white pine boughs and candles in modern hurricane lanterns, the terrace oozed romance.
After three months in the jungle, Roark appreciated the cool November evening as he enjoyed the glow of Manhattan visible beyond the terrace's cement half wall. Most of the time he found the city too tame for his taste. But there was no denying it sparkled at night.