Twelve years ago, Victoria Calder made a mistake that cost her father his business. Now she finally has a chance to atone. And if that means going toe-to-toe with the arresting Dmitri Markin she's prepared to step into the ring and put his on her finger!
Dmitriformer martial arts fighter, present-day pleasure seekeris a man who likes to win. The beautiful Ms. Calder might have initially shocked him with her proposition, but there's more than one advantage to the deal she's proposing If this dedicated bachelor is going to surrender to marriage it certainly won't be in name only!
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Victoria intensely disliked places like this. Gyms with boxing rings, hanging punching bags and various other accoutrements. The lighting was dim, casting everything in a dull shadow. It was probably for the best, all things considered, else it might reveal the stains from dirt, blood and whatever else that undoubtedly lingered on the canvas. The air smelled of sweat, of testosterone. And she could truly think of nothing less appealing.
The entire place, and all of its inhabitants, needed to be hosed down.
If it wasn't absolutely necessary she find Dmitri Markin, she would never have stepped foot in here.
She ran her hand over her hair, checking to see that everything was still in place, then walked forward, her high heels loud on the concrete floor as she strode through the workout area, studiously ignoring the male gazes that were following her progress through the room.
These were not the male gazes she was looking for. And therefore, she was uninterested.
Oily muscles did nothing for her. Thank you very much.
Not unless she needed a heavy box lifted. Then oily muscles could certainly serve a purpose, but not aesthetically. Not in her world.
One of the men she walked past whistled and she felt her muscles tense, starting at the base of her skull and spreading downward, her shoulders bunching up as the tension bled outward.
She didn't give the man the satisfaction of pausing, neither did she look at him. Rather, she ratcheted her chin up a notch and forged ahead, tightening her hold on her purse and keeping her strides even.
Over the years she had become something of a challenge to men. They knew she had a reputation for keeping herself separate, for keeping herself distant. And that made her a temptation, apparently, which was just one more reason she had to disdain the gender. Which was potentially unfair of her, but she didn't care.
In the interest of maintaining the family peace and getting back in her father's good books, she had at one time entertained the idea of making a suitable marriage. And in her mind, and the mind of her father, a suitable marriage meant marriage to royalty. Yet it had failed spectacularly. Because when she had managed to secure herself a royal fiancé, he had gone on to fall in love with their matchmaker.
Which had put her back at square one. Focusing on her charities and on raising her family's profile in the media.
Until she had found out that Dmitri Markin had something she wanted. And that he wanted something she had.
Now she had a whole new plan for fixing the pain she caused her family. And it would be a whole lot better than marrying a prince. Assuming she could accomplish it. And she would. Because she didn't fail. Not anymore.
She had the chance to atone for past sins. She'd spotted this open door, so she was walking through it.
Right at the moment she was thinking of metaphorical doors, she walked through a literal door and into the back of the gym. This was a private training room, so she had been told when she had inquired about Dmitri's haunts. And just as she had been informed, by the curvaceous redhead she had met at a party earlier in the week, Dmitri was here, grappling with another man.
They were both shirtless, in black pants, fighting as if their lives depended on it. She sniffed. Silly. Their lives certainly did not depend on it.
She recognized Dmitri immediately. He was larger than his opponent, well muscled and sporting an armful of ink. She didn't know what the symbols were, or what they represented; she only knew that, were the tabloids to be believed, they were the sort of thing that caused a lot of women to swoon.
Not her. She was not given to swooning.
To her, they were merely beneficial because they helped her to identify her target sooner.
She stopped walking, crossing her arms beneath her breasts and cocking her hip to the right. "Dmitri Markin?"
He wrapped his arms around his partner's waist, bent and flipped the other man over his shoulder, letting him land flat on his back on the mats. Then Dmitri straightened and turned to face her, hands on his lean hips, his chest pitching with the effort of his breathing. Sweat rolled down his skin, skating over his ab muscles and drawing her eye toward the waistband of his shorts. Toward the line of hair that continued down farther beneath the fabric.
Heat assaulted her and she redirected her gaze quickly. And that didn't help at all, because as distracting as his body was, well, his face wasn't any better.
A ripple of unease went through her. Photographs hadn't prepared her for the sheer magnetism he presented. An element she hadn't accounted for.
The realization made her stomach squeeze tight, apprehension winding through her. She was momentarily shocked, turned to stone, by the man standing before her.
Considering what he'd done for a living it wouldn't be outside the norm for his face to be a living record of every punch he'd taken. A time line of his years spent in the ring. But no. He didn't have the decency to be deformed. His dark hair was rumpled in a near-stylish manner, dark eyes glimmering with humor. His nose had a bump in it, likely from being broken, and it only made him look rakish, not disfigured. How annoying. Then there was the deep groove in his upper lip, likely a badly healed split, so that his mouth gave the impression he was always sneering slightly, even when he was smiling. That was rakish, too.
A shiver ran through her and she fought to keep from showing the evidence of it on her face. She needed to secure this deal. So that the rift between her and her father could be stitched back together. So that she could finally move on with her life.
She couldn't afford to be distracted. Not when she was so close.
Damn the man. Was there nowhere she could look? She let her eyes drift back to his chest, and she felt her cheeks get warmer. She had no idea what was going on with her, why for an instant she had felt frozen. Why she was unable to tear her eyes away from his body.
Perhaps it was simple appreciation at the weapon he clearly was. His past was no secret; everyone was well aware of his work as a mixed martial arts fighter. And even though it had been nearly a decade since he'd set foot into a ring, he was obviously still keeping himself honed.
So yes, it had something to do with all of that. And she was moving on.
"I am he." He took his hands from his hips and rolled his shoulders backward, thrusting his chest forward as he stretched his muscles, the shift and bunch of the lines on his body capturing her attention yet again. These were the very glistening muscles she had just been disavowing and dismissing, claiming they could not be aesthetically pleasing. At the moment she had to admit there was some aesthetic appeal.
Though, it wasn't in the way women typically admired men. No. Not in the least. This was artistic admiration. She had an eye for clean lines, good design. Dmitri was like fine architecture.
She cleared her throat. "My name is Victoria. Victoria Calder."
"I do not recall hearing your name before. I don't think we have an appointment." His every word was just slightly flat, still colored by a hint of Russian accent, though it was faded after long years of living in the UK. "Unless," he said, a slow smile crossing his lips, "you are looking for a chance to challenge me on the mats."
She gripped the strap of her purse tighter. "That's quite funny. Do you often have women coming to challenge you on the mats?"
The smile broadened, turned wicked, and her stomach turned over, twisted. She gritted her teeth and fought to maintain her composure. "More often than you might think."
She cleared her throat. "Excellent. Charming. That is, however, not why I'm here."
"Well, if it is legitimate business, an appointment is typically made." He looked her over, his gaze leaving a trail of heat behind. She tried to get her focus back. Tried to recite her plan in her head. Envision her goal. She could not be deterred. "There is a certain type of woman who shows up unannounced. If you have legitimate business I suggest you call my secretary and make an appointment. Otherwise, take off your dress."
She ignored the rough command. She also ignored the rush of heat that came along with it. He was expecting her to get all flustered. She was certain. And she would not give him the satisfaction. At least, she wouldn't show it, but the wild thumping of her heart made her think flustered was exactly what she was whether she wanted to be or not.
She swallowed hard and met his eyes. "I'll keep the dress on, thanks. Shall we adjourn to a more comfortable setting?"
"I am perfectly comfortable. And I was not expecting to have a meeting. Therefore, I will stay here."
The man he had been fighting had risen to his feet now and was standing there looking at the two of them. "Then perhaps you might ask him to leave," Victoria said.
"Because you're going to take the dress off?"
She cleared her throat, schooling her expression into one of disdain, ignoring the prickling feeling on the back of her neck. "Sadly for you, no. You can let go of that fantasy quickly. The dress isn't coming off until I get home and step into a nice warm bath, which, after the harassment I've endured today, is well deserved. I'm staying dressed. And we need to have a discussion."
"It sounds like I might be in trouble. But I have never slept with you, so I don't see why I should be. I have not caused you any trouble. Yet."
She gritted her teeth. He was really pulling out all the stops. Fortunately it was nothing she hadn't dealt with before. Typically the man wasn't shirtless. Typically he was not quite so good-looking. But neither of those things mattered, not to her. "Either he goes or I go," she said, keeping her tone bored. "And I have a feeling you want to hear what I have to say."
Dmitri cocked his head to the side, a small smile curving one side of his mouth. "Nigel, leave us for moment."
The other man nodded and walked out. Then Dmitri turned his focus to her. "Speak."
She readjusted her hold on her bag, her palms feeling sweaty now. "I am not a dog, nor indeed am I any type of pet. Rephrase."
He chuckled, a dark sound that poured over her like melting honey. That made her shiver. "Okay, why don't you tell me what you came here to tell me so that I can go take my shower?"
Her patience was wearing thin. She was still standing in the sweaty gym and, frankly, his bare chest was having more of an effect on her than she would like. Was making her feel as if there was a gaping hole in her plan. All of that was conspiring to put her in a very cranky mood. And that was the only thing that could account for the words that came out of her mouth next.
"All right, Mr. Markin. I just came here to ask you a question. Will you marry me?"
Dmitri looked at the powerhouse blonde standing in front of him. She was pale, with slim curves, long, lean legs and an expression that could make a lesser man wilt where he stood. And if the look of her didn't accomplish it, that crisp English accent, so posh it made a man feel as if he ought to put on a tie before he could speak to her, would.
He, however, was not a lesser man and was therefore not wilting. Not in the least. And he wasn't putting on a damned tie.
"Sorry, you might have had better luck with the proposal if you had taken the dress off."
"Cheap thrills are your thing, then?" she asked, arching a finely shaped brow.
He crossed his arms over his chest. "Yeah. I like a cheap thrill. Though, these days I can afford an expensive thrill, too. But honestly, why not just embrace every thrill available?" He looked her over again, taking in every curved line, every enticingly female part of her. "I would have picked you for an expensive thrill. But as you've price checked yourself "
"You'll find me short on thrills, Mr. Markin," she said, her voice biting. "Unless what I have to offer you is a thrilland do not get too excited. It has nothing to do with bare skin."
"Marriage usually does have something to do with bare skin. It is the only reason I can see anyone would enter into the union. Though, I've found my share outside of it."
"Which could be part of why you're having such a hard time finding support for your charity."
The back of his neck prickled. "How did you know about that?"
The charity he was working on establishing in Colvin's name was not common knowledge. Yes, he'd approached a few people about it, but he'd told those people to be discreet. The reactions had all been the same, too.
He would need support. Because a man with a reputation for driving too fast, sleeping with too many women, a man who had earned his fortune in the ring would have his efforts met with cynicism.
And he could not afford to have a negative reaction. Colvin was dead. There would be no paying him back in this life. But he could show the world what the other man had done for him. Offer choices to children who were in the position he had once been in.
Choices he had never had. Control that had been wrenched from him on a cold day in Moscow.
"I always have an ear to the ground," Victoria said, "plus, I have sat on the board for a great many charities over the years and have quite a few connections. I use those connections to my advantage."
"How does supporting a kids' charity benefit you?"
She blinked wide blue eyes slowly. "What do you mean? I'm only thinking of the children."
He swore crudely in Russian and laughed. "Right. I'm sure you are."
"I take it you don't believe me?"
"Do I believe the Ice Princess is thinking of the children? No. You would have to emanate some warmth before I would believe that."
She let out an exasperated sigh. "Sorry. Too busy to emanate today I'm afraid. Perhaps another time. However, I assure you I approach my charity work with complete dedication. But I save my passion for my work, so none for you, I'm afraid. Now, about my proposal."
"Why did you propose?"
She lifted a brow. "It was love at first sight?"
She leveled her gaze, meeting his, her eyes alight with determination. "I want London Diva back."
He frowned at the mention of one of his holdings. "Excuse me?"
"London Diva. I want the company signed back over to my family."
"Calder," he said, repeating her name. Of course he hadn't made the immediate connection. He'd bought the chain of highend retail stores out from under Nathan Barrett a few years back, but he knew it had been founded by Geoffrey Calder some thirty years earlier. "You're Geoffrey Calder's Well, you can't be his wife because you just proposed to me. His daughter?"
"Very good guess. A correct guess."
"So, you walk in and propose marriage, then demand a portion of my business. And what will you do for me in return?"
"You may have seen some of my charity work in the media. They speak quite highly of me. Some outlets have made comparisons with Mother Teresa, though I think that's selling her a bit short. It isn't as if I've given up all of my worldly possessions," she said, flashing her expensive-looking handbag. "But, though I'm not a paragon, I am, compared to you. And I have something you want. Something you seem incapable of buying."
He waved a hand. "Foolish woman. I have yet to find anything I can't buy."
"Except a better reputation." The expression on her face was almost comically angelic. He imagined she would look innocent of a crime just as she was about to cut a man's throat.