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Keira had been so focused on watching the bustle of guests in the ancient palace courtyard, where two of her closest friends had just married, that she hadn't realised that she was blocking the pathway to the garden. She had intended to make her way to one of the pavilions put up for the wedding celebrations, but had become distracted by the magical, intoxicating atmosphere of it all.
The male voice was authoritative and deep—velvet-rough, Keira decided, as though the nap of the fabric had been brushed to reveal the strength that lay beneath the silky surface. Just hearing it made her feel as though that same fabric had brushed against her own skin, and the sensual effect on her sent small electric shocks of awareness darting through her. His accent was recognisably English public school, and university honed: the accent of a man who took both position and wealth for granted as his right of birth. The accent of privilege, power and pride.
Would her accent give away as much about her? Would he sense the Northern accent she had learned to conceal beneath the tones she knew worked best for her in her business as an interior designer?
She turned towards him, her lips framing an apology for the fact that she had been so intent on watching what was going on that she had inadvertently blocked his way along the narrow path that led from the courtyard to the gardens. Her eyes widened as she realised she was looking at the most sexually compelling and dangerous man she had ever seen.
As though her whole body and all her senses had been hard-wired for this moment, every nerve-ending she possessed was reacting to him with a silent but violent intensity. It was likebeing physically attacked by her own body—like being mugged and having the protection of her normal caution stolen from her. She was frozen and wide-eyed, as aware of the dangerous nature of his impact on her as if she had been standing in front of an oncoming train.
The power of his sexuality slammed into her, leaving her unable to defend herself from it.
Jay didn't know why he was wasting his time standing here letting the woman stare at him in the way that she was, blatant in her awareness of him.
Admittedly she was beautiful. But she wasn't the only European guest attending the wedding, though with her looks and figure she would have stood out no matter where she was. Tall and elegant, she had a refined air about her whilst the lush curves of her body and the soft fullness of her mouth said clearly that hers was the kind of sensual nature he most enjoyed in a woman.
In bed she would display a sensuality that came straight from the most erotic pages of the Kama Sutra, enticing any man who became her lover into pleasuring her until she cried out against the intensity of that pleasure. He could see her now, her dark hair spread out against the pillows, her eyes luminous with arousal, the lips of her sex curving softly and moistly, waiting to open to his touch like the petals of a lily open to the heat of the sun, exposing the pulsing heart of their being, giving that most intimate part of themselves up to the sun's heat, spreading their petals in open appeal for its possession, the scent of their longing filling the air.
The sudden intensity of the sharp surge of desire hardening his body caught him off guard, causing him to shift his weight from one foot to the other.
At thirty-four he was more than old enough to be able to control his physical reactions to a desirable woman, and yet somehow this woman had him reacting to her so fast that he had been caught by the wayward direction of his own thoughts—and his desire for her.
She hadn't made any attempt to don the costume that the female Indian guests were wearing so confidently and elegantly, as some European women did when attending Indian celebrations. But none of those things would normally have been enough to counteract his belief that she was covertly suggesting to him that she was available, and thus by the law of probability was also available to any other man who might have chanced to cross her path. He waited for the desire she had aroused within him to be chilled by the distasteful idea he had deliberately conjured up, and frowned with the recognition that it had not done so.
He was even more stunned when he heard himself asking her, 'Bride or groom?'
'I was asking which side of the wedding party you belong to,' he told her.
His choice of the word 'belong' stung her pride and her mind with the familiar pain of knowing that there was no one in this world to whom she 'belonged', but it was somehow overwritten by the intoxicating fact that his question suggested that he wanted to prolong his contact with her.
He was undeniably handsome. Tension bit into her, as though some instinct deep inside her had pressed a warning button, but to her shock her senses were refusing to listen to it. How old was she? Certainly too old to stare in open awe at a man, no matter how good-looking he was. And yet, like a child hooked on the adrenalin kick of sugar, despite knowing that it wasn't good for her, she just couldn't stop looking at him.
He was wearing a light tan linen suit of the kind favoured by wealthy Italians, and everything about him breathed cosmopolitan upper-class privilege, education and wealth. His skin had the right kind of warm olive tint to it to carry off the suit, just as his body had the height and the muscles. Were his shoulders really that broad? It looked like it from the way he moved.
And yet, despite everything about him that proclaimed old money and social position, Keira could sense within him another darker side, a marauding, dangerous ruthlessness that clung to him so powerfully she could almost smell it.
She fought not to be drawn into the aura of magnetism that surrounded him. If anything was intoxicating her then surely it must be this most wonderful of wedding venues.
Originally a summer palace and hunting lodge owned by an ancient maharaja, it had been converted into a luxury five-star hotel. Formerly an island palace, it was now connected to the shore by a handsome avenue, but the impression created as one approached was that the palace and gardens floated on the serene waters of the lake that surrounded it.
If it wasn't the venue then perhaps it was the sensual scent of the lilies resting on the still water of the pools that was having such a dangerous effect on her senses? Whatever the cause, it was in her own interests to remember that she was supposed to be a rational adult.
Keira took a deep, calming breath and told him firmly, 'Both. I'm a friend of the bride and the groom.'
A swirl of activity refocused her attention on the wedding party. Late afternoon was giving way to early evening darkness, and preparations were almost finished for the evening reception. The small flickering flames of hundreds of glass-covered tea lights were scattered artfully around the large courtyard and floating in the pools and fountains, and the lights reflected in the lake beyond it giving it a magical aura of romance.
Richly embroidered pavilions in jewel colours were being erected as though by magic, their gold threadwork catching the light, and the branches of the trees in the gardens beyond the courtyard dripped strings of tiny fairy lights, illuminating the paths that led to individual guest suites in what was now one of India's most exclusive hotel and spa resorts.
Soon the newly married couple and their families would be changing for the evening, and she needed to go and do the same, she reminded herself, and yet she made no move to step aside, thereby ending their conversation and allowing him to walk away from her.
Perhaps it was something to do with the late-afternoon sun that was transforming the sky above them from deep turquoise to warm pink, or the languorous heat turning the air soft with a sensuality that was almost like a physical touch against her skin that was causing her heart to thud with heavy-laden beats. Or perhaps it was the effect the man standing so close to her was having on her.
Something inside her weakened and ached. It was India that was doing this to her. It had to be. She was beginning to panic now, caught off guard and out in the open with nowhere to run by the shockingness of her own vulnerability to instincts over which she had previously believed she had total control.
She needed desperately to think about something else. The wedding she was here to attend, for instance.
Shalini had used the magnificent venue for her wedding as the inspiration for her choice of traditional clothes. Tom had thrown himself into it, and had looked amazing in his red and gold turban, his gold silk sherwani suit and scarf embroidered to match Shalini's gold and red embroidered lehenga.
Keira would have wanted to attend Shalini and Tom's wedding wherever it had been held; they, along with Shalini's cousin Vikram, were her closest friends. And when Shalini had told her that she and Tom had decided to follow up their British civil marriage with a traditional Hindu ceremony here in Ralapur, nothing could have kept Keira away.
She had been longing to visit this ancient city state. It had captured her imagination immediately when she had first read about it. But Keira hadn't just come here for Shalini's wedding and to see the city. She had business here as well. She most certainly hadn't come looking for romance, she decided, before elaborating on her presence at the wedding.
'I was at university with Tom and Shalini,' she explained, before asking curiously, 'And you?'
It was typical of her type of woman that her voice should be low and husky, even if the slight vulnerable catch in it was a new twist on the world's oldest story. He had no intention of telling her anything personal about himself, or the fact that his elder brother was the new Maharaja.
'I have a connection with the bride's family,' he told her. It was after all the truth, since he owned the hotel. And a great deal more. He looked out across the lake. His mother had loved this place. It had become her retreat when she'd needed to escape from the presence of his father the Maharaja and his avaricious courtesan, who had turned his head so much that he'd no longer cared about the feelings of his wife and his two sons.
Jay's mouth, full-lipped and sharply cut in a way that subtly underlined its sensuality, hardened at his thoughts. He had been eighteen, and just back from the English public school where both he and his brother had been educated. That winter the woman who had stolen away his father's affections with her openly sexual touches and her wet greedy mouth, painted with scarlet lipstick to match her nails, had first come to Ralapur. A 'modern' woman, she had called herself. A woman who had refused to live shackled by outdated moral rules, a woman who had looked at Jay's father, seen his position and his wealth, and had wanted him for herself. A greedy, amoral harlot of a woman who sold herself to men in return for their gifts. The opposite of his mother, who'd been gentle and obedient to her husband, and yet fierce in her protective love of her sons.
Jay and his elder brother, Rao, had shown their outrage by refusing to acknowledge the existence of the woman who had usurped their mother in her husband's heart.
'You must not blame your father,' she had told Jay. 'It is as though a spell has been cast on him, so that he is blind to everything and everyone but her.'
His father had been blind indeed not to see the woman for what she was, but he had refused to hear a word against her, and Rao and Jay had had to stand to one side and watch as their father humiliated their mother and himself with his obsession for her. The court had been filled with the courtiers' whispered gossip about her. She had boasted openly of her previous lovers, and had even threatened to leave their father if he did not give her the jewels and money she demanded.
Jay had burned with anger against his father, unable to understand how a man who had always prided himself on his moral stance, a man who was so proud of his family's reputation, quick to condemn others for their moral lapses, should behave in such a way.
In the end Jay had quarrelled so badly with his father that he had had no option other than to leave home.
Both his mother and Rao had begged him not to go, but Jay had his own pride and so he had left, announcing that he no longer wished to be known as the second son of the Maharaja, and that from now on he would make his own way in the world. A foolish claim, perhaps, for a boy of only just eighteen
His father had laughed at him, and so had she—the slut who had ultimately been responsible for the death of his mother. Officially the cause of her death had been pneumonia, but Jay knew better. His gentle, beautiful mother had died of the wounds inflicted on her heart and her pride by a tramp who hadn't been fit to breathe the same air. He loathed the kind of woman his father's lover had been—greedy, sexually available to any man who had the price of her in his pocket.
He had been reluctant to return to Ralapur at first, when Rao had succeeded their father, but Rao had persisted, and out of love for his brother Jay had finally given in. Even now he wasn't sure if he had done the right thing.
The boy who had walked away from a life that held the status of being his father's second son into an uncertain future where he would have nothing but his own abilities had returned to the place of his birth a very wealthy man, who commanded respect not only in his own country but throughout Europe and North America as well. A billionaire property developer with such a sure eye for a successful venture that he was besieged by people wanting to go into business with him.
Now he was old enough to understand the sexual heat that had driven his father to forsake the high-born wife he had wed as a matter of state protocol and tradition for the courtesan who had courted and mastered his physical desire.