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Lily Grayson placed a hand on her still-slender waist and searched the familiar ballroom. Shimmering silver and gold streamers hung from the expansive twenty-foot ceiling; a string quartet provided presupper music, which blended with the chatter of two hundred black-tie guests. A high-society birthday party was in full swing, but enjoying the festivities could play no part in Lily's plan.
Lips dry and her breathing shallow, her gaze flew from face to face, looking for the man she needed to speak with urgently. The man she'd once loved, but could never trust with her heart… or their unborn baby's emotional well-being.
The multimillionaire corporate raider whom men feared and women coveted.
A waiter paused, tray covered with flutes of crystalline champagne and fine-stemmed glasses of wine, but she shook her head and continued her circuit of Travis Blakely's sixtieth birthday party. In the six months she'd been with Damon, she'd visited his uncle's Melbourne home several times, but not once since their breakup almost three months ago. Since Damon had let her down when she'd needed him most.
The thought led back to her gran, home alone tonight, recovering from another bout of pneumonia, part of the ill health that had incapacitated her recently. If only Gran would accept more help, but she refused to move in with Lily or let Lily live with her. Gran valued her independence and Lily couldn't help but feel powerless. But she wouldn't be sidetracked with thoughts of her beloved grandmother now. She'd see Gran taken care of, one way or another.
Tonight she needed to find Damon.
Lily continued searching from guest to guest as she wove through the crowd. The women in evening gowns of satins and sequins reminded her of peacocks parading for attention, and the sounds of clinking glasses and a hundred indistinct conversations culminated in an assault on her ears. She'd rather be anywhere than here—this was not her world. But it was his world and she needed to find him.
Searching still, she swung around. Her heartbeat stalled before exploding in her chest as her gaze collided with his.
Dead ahead, suave in a tux, red wine in one hand, the other free to shake the hands of acquaintances who stepped into his path, Damon smiled and passed comments with those who waylaid him. The charming lord of all he surveyed. But his distinctive eyes, with the black ring circling the ice-blue iris, were focused on her.
An exquisite shiver passed down her spine at the intensity of his gaze and her body reacted with predictable awareness. Lily closed her eyes to tamp down the response but her lids immediately fluttered open. He stirred within her an overwhelming hunger. Even now, she couldn't keep her eyes from devouring him.
Damon towered over the other guests, and she realized that instead of searching for him, she should have stood on the entrance stairs to spot his characteristic waves of midnight-dark hair. Or closed her eyes and let her body find his with the magnetic link that still drew her to him.
He finished talking to a rotund man, who laughed heartily at Damon's parting comment, then took several strides toward her before being tapped on the shoulder by an elderly statesman Lily recognized from the newspapers.
She eased out a breath—it seemed she wouldn't need to approach him. He was coming to her. As her blood heated and skin tightened at the thought, she took an involuntary step back. Amazing. Even after all his neglect and the utter anguish he'd caused, the force of her attraction was still overpowering.
Leaning against a cool pillar, she waited, taking in the scene of Melbourne's elite at play. At odds with those around her, she'd never wanted a life of extravagance. Growing up with Gran, who'd struggled to keep a roof over their heads after her son—Lily's father—had gambled the family home away, she'd wished only for security. Financial stability, no more.
The cloying scent of too many expensive perfumes and colognes mingling in the enclosed space made her head spin, and she looked longingly toward the exit. She needed to get this over with. The stress of trying to anticipate Damon's reaction to her news was pushing her to breaking point. She was still coming to grips with it herself.
Finished with the statesman, Damon took the last few strides to reach her, his broad shoulders and long legs showcased by the tuxedo.
He didn't say a word, just seemed to drink her in, his sensuous mouth parted slightly before he downed the rest of his wine and discarded the glass on the tray of a passing waiter. Then he clasped her elbow and slowly reached down to press a kiss to her cheek, a little too close to the corner of her mouth for propriety, but then Damon had never worried about convention when it clashed with his interests.
"Hello, Lily." He seemed to roll her name around his mouth before delivering it in his deep voice, something that had always sent her pulse erratic. "You look gorgeous."
His compliment hummed through her blood, even as she told herself not to listen. She'd learned long ago that people said what they wanted you to hear. A lesson she'd relearned recently thanks to the man still holding her arm.
She swallowed and found her voice. "Hello, Damon. You look good, too. You always did in a tuxedo," she conceded.
His mouth curved and pale blue eyes gleamed. "I'd rather hoped you preferred me out of my tuxedo."
An unbidden image of them entwined on his bed rose in her mind. The memory of his tanned, muscled body contrasted against crisp fine cotton sheets made her inwardly groan. When an ache deep and low in her stomach began to throb, Lily gritted her teeth and withdrew her elbow in a move others in the room wouldn't notice, but which sent a clear message to Damon—touching was a right he no longer possessed.
A raised eyebrow told her he'd taken her meaning and wasn't offended. He sank his hands into his front trouser pockets. Confident and sexy to the core.
She needed to tell him now, before his lethal sexuality scrambled her brain further. Needed to get him somewhere private so she could tell him about their baby as well as her plans to move on with her life.
He leaned close and whispered in her ear, his warm breath tickling sensuously. "There's something I'd like to talk to you about in private."
Lily froze. Had he guessed? No, he couldn't have— she wasn't showing yet and at fourteen weeks, her morning sickness had passed. There were no clues and no one else knew, she'd made certain of it. Her secret was safe, until she told Damon in her own words.
And now he wanted to speak to her in private—it seemed fate had cut her a break for once. She would grab the opportunity. "When?"
He gave a self-satisfied grin. "How does now suit?"
Her legs felt weak but she maintained the cool facade. "Where?"
For reply he took her hand and led her away. As firecrackers shot through her veins, Lily shook her head.
Obviously she needed to make clearer her position on the no-touching rule. However, for expediency's sake, this one last time she would allow the contact.
Though perhaps she shouldn't take his acts of entitlement and their effects on her so personally; all women seemed to succumb to Damon Blakely's innate sensuality when they were in his orbit. Far more important to her were other qualities—traits Damon seemed incapable of understanding or displaying. Emotional reliability. Prioritizing others' needs before his own. Worse, she knew that would never change.
He drew her down a quiet hallway toward the rear of the stark mansion where he'd grown up, until she recognized the heavy double sliding doors of Travis Blakely's private gallery.
Damon flicked on the lights and her art-gallery curator's eye was drawn to the priceless artwork hanging on the walls and enclosed in glass on podiums.
She drifted forward and ran a finger along the edge of one glass cabinet, not turning to him, even when he spoke.
"We haven't been alone in, how long?" A wall of heat moved behind her and for one crazy moment she let herself simply absorb his warmth in hope of soothing her chilled heart.
"Almost three months." She turned, bringing her within a foot of him. Her heart skipped a beat to find him so close.
"How have you been? Your gran?" He casually reached to toy with a strand of her long silver-blond hair, sending a frisson of heat across her skin.
"I've been fine," she whispered, wishing her voice had been stronger but unable to help his effect on her.
"Gran's been under the weather, but she's coming out of it now."
At least physically. Her medical bills had mounted up and, with no assets or income besides the old age pension, Lily was worried for the woman who'd raised her since the age of twelve. Gran had already lost so much, her son, her health, her house, her nest egg…
Damon released the lock of hair and grazed his knuckles down the side of her cheek in a touch as light as butterfly wings. "That must have been hard for you."
Lily nodded, torn between her body's reaction to Damon's touch and the thoughts his words evoked. She owed Gran everything, loved her beyond measure.
"I suppose she still won't let you help." His voice was quiet, beguiling.
On the verge of slipping under his sensual thrall, she caught herself. She had to wrest back power over her own body.
She stepped away and moved to the other side of the glass cage, putting the artwork between them as a token symbol of protection. Only then did she trust herself to reply. "She says that after raising me to stand on my own two feet, the last thing she wants is for me to be financially behind the eight ball because of her."
Damon didn't appear to feel thwarted by her physical retreat, more like she'd thrown down the gauntlet and he'd accepted. He prowled the trail she'd followed, yet bypassed her position and leaned against a nearby column, ankles crossed, hands resting on narrow hips. The pose of a predator biding his time. "Have you come up with any options?"
She took a breath, held it, then admitted, "Not yet. But I will." Finding a way to look after Gran was a priority.
He pushed off the column, rolling his shoulders as he hunted the shadows of the room, before turning and ending squarely in front of her.
His eyes seemed to consume her whole. "You seem sure about that." His arched eyebrow told her that he didn't share her confidence.
Truth be told, she had no idea how she'd make sure Gran was taken care of, but she wouldn't consider failure.
"Don't worry about me, Damon, I'll find a way." The heat radiating from him, the raw sexual hunger in his gaze, made it difficult to think, to say anything, but she needed to change the subject. "It seems I should be more worried about you. I heard Travis disinherited you after we broke up."
"Ah, yes. The millions of tainted dollars, this loving family home." He swept an arm around, eyes filled with derision. "Everything."
"Including the one thing you've always coveted." Had wanted more than he'd wanted her. His late father's company, BlakeCorp.
Looking down at her hands, she blinked away any remnants of emotion that thought still evoked. She was over it. Over him.
Movement drew her attention back to his face. He was closer again. The barely visible tension in his features dissolved, replaced by his usual arrogant self-assurance.
Hands clasped behind his back, Damon leaned in to whisper in her ear. "I have an offer for you. To help your gran."
Undiluted shock surged through her entire body. Her neck snapped back and she sought his eyes. It was the last thing she'd expected. "What offer?"
"I'll buy her a house. One with all modern safety features for someone her age, but where she still has her independence. I'll pay off all her outstanding medical expenses. And I'll employ a private nurse to help until she's back on her feet. Longer, if she'll allow it." He smiled, assured his offer was too good to refuse. "You know she'll accept. She knows I can afford it and she always had a soft spot for me."
"Why would you do that?"
He shrugged and took her hand, drawing her still closer, pressing his advantage. "Travis invited me here tonight to make me an offer. I want to extend the offer to include you. And your Gran."
Lily narrowed her eyes. "I thought you'd both sworn never to lay eyes on the other again." In fact, she'd been astonished when Travis's secretary had rung to follow up on Lily's RSVP tonight, and had revealed that Damon was expected. But she'd immediately seen her chance to speak with him—Damon had been out of the country and, unsure of when he'd jet off again, she'd grabbed the first opportunity to see him she could.
But she had to stay on guard. Game playing came as naturally to the Blakelys as making money. "Why would Travis come to you now and make an offer?"
"Been keeping up on the family goings-on, Lily?" His thumb ran up and down on the wrist he held. "Perhaps you still have my best interests at heart."
Lily blew out a dismissive breath and withdrew her hand. Her stomach churned. How much more of this game could she take? "Damon, for pity's sake, cut the theatrics and answer my question."
He smiled—the slow smile of a panther assured of catching its prey. Though, just who he thought his prey was this time—her or Travis—she wasn't certain.
"Travis received some tragic news from his doctor today." Damon didn't even try to pretend that any news that was tragic for Travis would adversely affect him. There had been no love lost between the two long before she'd met either of them.
She knew Travis had raised Damon with more than an iron rod—he'd also used emotional abuse and deliberate neglect as tools to rear his older brother's son. Damon had never wanted to talk much about it, but it'd been easy enough to put two and two together—and the answer had broken her heart. Perhaps she'd given Damon one chance too many when they'd been together, knowing how he'd never really escaped the torment of his childhood. But she couldn't go on giving him chances now. Things had changed.
One thing she knew, Damon would never forgive Travis. What surprised her was that they'd lasted so long without either one destroying the line of inheritance.
She tried to gauge Damon's feelings from his expression but failed. "If he's talking to you again, the news is obviously something that's made him confront his mortality."