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It was like looking at a stranger.
A glamorous, sexy stranger.
Zara blinked in disbelief at the image which gleamed back at her from the long mirrorall curves and shadows and expanses of unaccustomed bare flesh. How long since she had looked like thislike a real woman instead of a drudge? Though come to think of it, she could never remember looking quite like this before.
The acidgreen satin dress clung to her body like syrup, delicate fabric pooling to the floor in a silken stream. It was light years away from her usual jeans and sloppy Tshirtsbut the differences didn't stop there. Her eyes looked huge and sooty above carefully highlighted cheekbones and her usual ponytail had been replaced with a slick and grownup chignon, leaving her bare neck feeling curiously vulnerable. Fake diamonds sparkled at her throat and hung in glittering waterfalls from her ears. She narrowed her eyes. Didn't she look just a little ostentatious?
Resisting the urge to chew on her carefully manicured nails, she looked down at her friend, who was kneeling on the floor at her feet. 'Emma, I can't,' she croaked.
'Can't what?' Emma gave the silken hem of the dress a final tug.
'I can't gatecrash this partyI'm a waitress, not a socialite! I can't target some mystery Russian billionaire because you think he'd be good for your business. And I can't carry off wearing the kind of outfit which makes me feel as if I'm not wearing anything at all. Shall I go on?'
Emma took the pin out of her mouth. 'Rubbish! Of course you can. You'll be doing us both a favour. I get to showcase one of my dresses to one of the world's richest menand you get your first night out since heaven only knows when. Believe me, Zara, chances like this don't come along very often. Nikolai Komarov owns department stores in every major city in the world and he's a connoisseur of beautiful women. He's itching to have me design a collection for him or to clothe his latest mistresshe just doesn't know it yet!'
Zara glanced down at the gossip magazine which was open to reveal a black and white photo of the Russian oligarch and more doubts pricked over her skin as his pale and strangely intense eyes seemed to bore straight into her like twin laser beams. 'And I'm supposed to give him your business card?'
'Because because it's like I'm going to be touting for trade at a social occasion.'
'Nonsense. They'll all be doing it. It's what's known in the business world as networking. It isn't as if you're hurting anybody, is it? And anyway, you could do with something like this. How long is it since you had any real enjoyment?'
Enjoyment? Zara's fingers tightened around the little feathered concoction of a handbag she was holding because her friend's question had touched a nerve. And maybe the nerve was rawer than she'd thought. It did seem an eternity since she had been out anywhere unless it was to the grocery store or pharmacy at the end of the road. Her beloved godmother's final illness had dragged on and on until death had seemed like a release from all the little indignities and sadnesses she had borne along the way.
For months, Zara's life had been dominated by the sickroom while she had nursed the woman who hadn't even been a blood relative. But her loyalty to the lady who'd taken her in after the death of her parents meant that she'd dropped her studies to care for her without a second thought. Day and night she had juggled meals, care, bills and medicinesand waitressing for Emma's mother's catering company whenever she could squeeze it in.
And when it had all been over, and the last of the alltoofew sympathy cards had been read, Zara had felt lonely and bereft. As if too much had happened for her to ever contemplate returning to the carefree student life she'd known before. There were still debts to be settled, tooand her grim determination not to lose the little house she'd been bequeathed seemed to dominate her thoughts. An unknown future lay ahead of her, and it was scary.
'So why not have a little fun, Zara? Why not be a Cinderella for the night and dance all your cares away? You know you'll be doing me a huge favour.'
Zara gave a wry smile as Emma's voice butted into her thoughts. Could she? If only cares could simply be danced awayhow much simpler the world would be. Yet maybe her friend was right. What was stopping her from having a little lighthearted diversion? Unless she was secretly yearning for the alternative scenario of yet another night spent worrying about the stack of unpaid bills, which wouldn't seem to go away
'Okay,' she said, drawing her shoulders back and taking one last look at her reflection. 'I'll go. I'll enjoy wearing this exquisite gown you've created and try to enjoy being on the other side of a tray for oncedrinking the champagne instead of handing it out! And I'll walk up to this Russian oligarch of yours and give him your card. How's that?'
'Perfect! I've primed the other waitresses about it and they think it's a wonderful idea. I guess they can't really object, since my mum is the one who's employing them and she's not even in the country! Now go! Go ongo!'
Clutching the crumpled money her friend had thrust at her, Zara walked out of the small studio in toohigh heels and hailed the welcoming light of a black cab before she had time to change her mind about a scheme which seemed to be growing crazier by the second.
The summer evening was still light and every flower in the capital seemed to be in bloom, but as the taxi drew up outside the Embassy her heart began to race. What if she was discovereda humble waitress masquerading as a bonafide guest? An imposter who had no right to be there. Wouldn't they throw her out and kick up the most tremendous fuss in the process? Yet the man who collected her ticket at the door did nothing other than flick her a quick, admiring glance and Zara drew a deep breath as she walked into the gleaming ballroom.
The vast room looked spectacular. Glittering chandeliers threw diamond lights over tall vases of scarlet roses and a string quartet was playing on a raised dais in front of a shiny, bare dancefloor. She glanced at the other guests and thought how amazing they looked.
Especially the female guests. Their diamonds were the real thing and surely that stood out by a mile. Was the rich Russian really going to be impressed by what she was wearinga handcrafted gown made by an ambitious young fashion studentwhen there was so much screamingly expensive couture in this room?
She could see a couple of men turning round to glance at her and their women partners following suit. Could they guess that she was operating outside her comfort zonethat she was actually trespassing? Suddenly, Emma's mad scheme seemed destined to fail and, nervously, Zara grabbed a glass of champagne from a girl she'd worked with on countless occasions and took a mouthful of cold wine. The alcohol relaxed her a little especially when a couple of the other waitresses she knew winked and murmured hello in passing.
But something was making her feel uncomfortablesome sixth sense, which told her she was being watched.
Now you're just being paranoid, she told herself.
Yet the sensation persisted as she moved through the glamorous throng until she found her eyes being drawn unwillingly to a man who was standing at the far end of the ballroom.
And suddenly, she couldn't stop looking.
It was like seeing a drop of blood on virgin snow because he stood out from everyone else in the room. His hair was the colour of beaten gold, his eyes were glacially blue and he possessed a hard and arrogant mouth, which spoke of experience and sensuality. Zara realised that the man's high, sculpted cheekbones and piercing eyes were oddly familiarand then she realised why. She felt a shiver whisper over her skin. It was Nikolai
Komarovthe Russian oligarch, and the man she was supposed to be targeting.
Her first thought was that his photo hadn't done him justiceon the page he had been appealing but in the flesh he was perfect. And her second thought was that he was the most intimidating man she had ever seen. His face made her think of a diamondwith its hard, sculpted angles and those cold, glittering eyes. And as for the rest of him.
Zara swallowed down an unfamiliar kind of hunger. Powerful, wealthy tycoon he might be, but, more than anything, he was pure and unbridled masculinity.
A beautifully cut suit moulded his body, emphasising wide shoulders, solid torso and narrow hips, which tapered down to long, muscular legs. He held himself tall and very straight, and stood so still that for a moment Zara thought he might almost have been made from wax, rather than from flesh and blood. But waxen eyes did not gleam like that, did they? And nor did they focus with unmoving scrutiny on their subjectthe way he was doing with her. It felt like having all the breath punched from her body as she found herself captured in his cold yet searing gaze.
From his position at the far end of the room, Nikolai saw the woman glance over at him and felt his body tense, although a woman looking at him was nothing new. Women looked at him all the time. Though not usually like that, he conceded. Like a startled little deer who'd just spied the big, bad hunter deep in the forest.
Who the hell was she? He'd noticed her the moment she'd walked into the ballroom in that clinging green gown and he had been watching her ever since. His expression grew thoughtful. Something about her made her stand out from the crowd of overdressed women and he couldn't work out what it was. How come she'd ignored everybody in the room except to smile rather nervously at the waitresses?
With the practised look of the connoisseur, his eyes swept over her in lazy assessment. Unlike most of the women here tonight, her face wasn't stiffened with Botox and her hair had the natural shine of youth. But it was her body which was the real showstopper. He felt a sudden flare of lust as he acknowledged that her body was absolutely amazing. All curves and seductive hollows and none of the gaunt look of the overdieted. He let his gaze drift downwards over her bare shouldersat skin which gleamed as softly as silkto where her pert and luscious breasts formed a cleavage which was like an open invitation to a man's lips.
He put down his barely touched glass of champagne onto a passing waitress's tray. Nikolai's interest was piqued. He quirked her a smile he only ever used sparingly, and waited for the inevitable. Any minute now and she would start walking towards him with a hopeful little look of expectation on her face.
Nikolai's eyes narrowed as the woman seemed to hesitate, before turning away and beginning to walk in the opposite direction. And for a moment he couldn't quite believe it.
She had turned her back on him!
Now his interest was definitely alerted. All the hunter instincts which usually lay dormantmade redundant by modern women who preferred to do the chasingrose to heat his blood. Was she playing games? Had she turned away simply to give him the opportunity to feast his eyes on the delectable swell of her buttocks? Nikolai's gaze was drawn irresistibly to the twin satincovered globes and he swallowed. Because nobody could deny that it was a very delectable bottom indeed.
Like a puppet who was having his strings twitched by some unseen fingers, he began to tail her.
Zara could feel the little hairs on the back of her neck prickling and the sudden race of her heart as she moved through the ballroom. She wasn't being paranoid and she wasn't imagining it. He was following her! The intimidatingly handsome Russian with the icy stare who had been standing as still as a waxwork was now pursuing her across the room with a sure stealth.
She swallowed. Had he rumbled her? Guessed that she was an imposter with no earthly right to be here? In which case, wouldn't it just be best if she headed for the door, grabbed a bus and then phoned Emma with the news that her idea had been a disaster and that they should never have entertained it for more than a second? Because suddenly, the idea of waltzing up to him and presenting him with a business card seemed the height of crassness. What had given her the idea that she would have the nerve to do something like that?
Risking a quick glance over her shoulder, she could see that he had been swallowed up by the crowd and she speeded up as much as her impractical shoes would allow. Shielded by a cluster of guests, she ducked behind a huge marble pillar and stayed there for long enough to convince herself that she'd shaken him off. And when she came out, there was no sign of him. That rather daunting presence and those piercing eyes were nowhere to be seen. Quashing down an unmistakeable pang of disappointment, she glanced around, realising that she could make her escape, and.
Zara froze as a deep accent she'd never heard cut through the jumble of her thoughts, some bonedeep instinct telling her that it was him. It could only be him. And reflecting how unfair life could bethat a man who looked like some sort of golden and dangerous god should have the kind of voice which sent tingles down a woman's spine just by uttering a word which managed to sound like both a command and a question. Ignore him, she told herself. Pretend you haven't heard him and carry on walking.
She made to take a step forward but he spoke again and she found her feet frozen into immobility by his silken question.
'Are you trying to run away from me?'
Short of being rude and causing a scene, Zara knew that she had no choice other than to brazen it out. Pinning what she hoped was a confident smile to her lips, she turned to face him, her heart hammering beneath the thin silk of her dress. 'Why, do you think I should run away from you?' she questioned calmly.
'Well, that rather depends,' he murmured as his eyes drifted over her body.
Yet even as Zara felt her skin tingle in response to his unashamed appraisal she knew that this was dangerous. Very dangerous. He was flirting with herand in a way which was completely outside her comfort zone. Yet what could she do other than to play the part of the sophisticate she had been dressed to look likeeven if inside she suddenly felt like a scared little girl who was out of her depth? She tried to remember the kind of things which seasoned flirts said on television programmes.
'Really?' She widened her eyes. 'On what?'
Nikolai's lips gave a flickering curve of satisfaction. This was better. Much better. For a moment back then, he had thought she meant itthat she was actually giving him the brushoff. And when had that last happened? Never, he reflected sagely. He might have been described as the world's biggest commitmentphobe, but he was a master at getting women into his arms. He felt the quick beat of pleasure as he realised that up close she was just as delicious. 'On whether you're any good at dealing with difficult and demanding men,' he mused.