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Even the brilliant Mediterranean sunshine couldn't lighten her mood.
With a stab of frustration, Kat pushed the spill of dark hair away from her eyes and leaned back against the soft leather seat of the limousine. A week had passed, but the memories of that night were still vivid. A night when accusations—and counter-accusations—had spun through the air like the blade of a helicopter. And another guilty family secret had reared its ugly head.
If only it hadn't happened at the glittering Balfour Charity Ball—where half the world's press had been camped outside, waiting for an almighty scoop. Briefly, Kat closed her eyes. Bet they couldn't believe their luck.
Last year's ball had been bad enough—when she had made a humiliating fool of herself in front of the arrogant Spaniard, Carlos Guerrero—but at least nobody except her father had witnessed it. This time had been worse—with her twin sisters announcing the news that their beloved sister Zoe had been sired by another man and was not a true Balfour after all.
Scenting blood—the paparazzi had been baying around the fabulous family mansion for days—and once again the Balfour name had been splashed all over the papers. Those words Kat had become so used to, whenever her family's name was mentioned, were once again the hot topic of the day. Words that still had the power to wound, no matter how many times she'd heard them.
And the truth was that, yes, the Balfours were brimming with all of those things—and more. But just because they were rich, didn't mean they were impervious to pain or hurt. Prick them, and they bled—just like everybody else. Nobody saw that, of course, and nobody ever would—well, certainly not in Kat's case. She allowed herself a grim smile. Because the moment you showed hurt, you made yourself vulnerable—and vulnerability was the most dangerous thing of all. Didn't she know that better than anyone?
She stared out of the car window, reminding herself how she'd coped with the latest indignity. The same way that she always coped. She'd cut loose and run from the family estate. Not far, it was true—only as far as London—where she had booked into a hotel, using a fake name and a vast pair of sunglasses to hide behind.
Until her father had rung her yesterday morning offering her an 'opportunity.'
Why had she felt a momentary wave of suspicion? Was it because that although Oscar was her true blood father, he had never been close to her heart in the same way as her beloved stepfather, Victor? Kat blinked back the tears which sprang to her eyes and replaced them with the defiant expression she had perfected. She wasn't going to think about her stepfather, or the past. She just wasn't. Because that way lay madness and regret and all those other painful emotions which she fought like crazy to keep at bay.
Nonetheless, her voice had been wary as she'd replied, 'What kind of opportunity, Daddy?'
There had been a pause. Had she imagined the unfamiliar steely quality which had entered his voice? 'The kind of opportunity which should be seized,' he said flatly. 'Didn't you tell me at the ball the other night that you were bored with your life, Kat?'
Had she said that? In a moment of weakness, had she been stupid enough to let on to the patriarch of the Balfour clan that a stream of loneliness as deep as a river seemed to be coursing through her veins?
'Indeed you did. So why not grab at the opportunity for a change of scene and a change of air. How does a boat trip round the Mediterranean sound?'
It sounded exactly what she needed. Some good sea air and the chance to escape. And even though her father had tantalisingly refused to give her any more details, Kat knew it would be a treat. Because despite the impatience Oscar occasionally felt towards his daughters, deep down he loved nothing more than to lavish life's extravagances on them.
Which was why she was now reclining in the back of a luxury limousine, heading for the glamorous port of Antibes, while outside the brilliant Proven al sun beat down on all the wealthy holidaymakers. The glittering sea was shaded brilliant colours of cobalt and azure and the port was crammed with the biggest motor yachts you would find anywhere in the world. But that was the south of France for you—all glamour and glitz and buckets of money.
With a slickness perfected by years of practice, Kat pushed away her troubled thoughts as the limo slid to a halt next to a line of beautiful, bobbing yachts.
'There it is, miss,' said the driver, pointing to the biggest boat of all—where a couple of white-uniformed crew members were moving purposefully around the deck.
Suddenly, her mood was forgotten as Kat stared up at the most amazing-looking yacht she'd ever seen. With its long, aerodynamic shape and pointed prow, it rose up out of the water like some dazzling seabird. She could see a polished wooden deck and the turquoise glimmer of a swimming pool—as well as the ultimate convenience of a helicopter pad.
'Oh, wow,' she said, lips softening into a smile. Since babyhood, she had mixed in exalted and rich circles and knew that superyachts cost a fortune to own and maintain—but this magnificent vessel really was in a league of its own. It was… spectacular. Tourists were standing taking photographs of it and briefly Kat wondered who the owner could possibly be—and why her father had tantalisingly refused to tell her.
The name gave few clues. Painted in dark, curving letters along the side were the words Coraz n Fr o. Behind her dark glasses, Kat's eyes narrowed. Meaning what, precisely?
She was certainly no linguist—but even she could recognise that the language was Spanish. Her heart skipped an erratic beat. As was the only man who had ever slapped her down and humiliated her in public.
And who had haunted her dreams ever since. A man with a hard, lean body and wild black hair and the coldest eyes she had ever seen.
Shaking away a memory even more unsettling than the uproar at last week's ball, Kat stepped out onto the quayside and couldn't help noticing that people had stopped to look at her.
But then, people always did. If you dazzled them with the externals, then they never really looked beyond to see the real person underneath. Clothes could be the armour that shielded you—that stopped people from getting too close. And it was better that way. Much better.
She was wearing a teeny pair of shorn-off denim shorts and a shrunken white T-shirt which gave the occasional glimpse of a flat midriff tanned the colour of pale caramel. Shiny black hair cascaded down over her shoulders and all the way down her back—and her Balfour blue eyes were hidden behind a pair of enormous shades. She knew exactly what kind of uniform to wear on this kind of rich and privileged yachting trip—and she had abided to it by the letter. You dressed down, but you wore as many status symbols as possible.
'Bring my bags, will you?' Kat said to the driver, before making her way towards the gangplank. Teetering a little on a pair of the season's most fashionable espadrilles, she saw a fair-haired man in uniform approaching her and she smiled.
'Hello. You're probably expecting me. I'm Kat Balfour,' she said.
'Yeah.' The man nodded, squinting his pale blue eyes at her, a small diamond glinting at his ear lobe. 'I thought you must be.'
Kat looked around. 'Any of the other guests here yet?'
'And my… host?' How crazy it sounded not to even know him—or her—by name! Why hadn't she insisted her father tell her? Because you were too busy trying to ingratiate yourself with him, whispered the candidly cruel voice of her conscience. Knowing that he was in an odd sort of mood and terrified that he might put a stop to your allowance—and then where would you be? She could see the man looking at her quizzically and realised it would look faintly ridiculous if she had to ask him who his employer was! 'Has my host arrived yet?'
The man shook his head. 'Not yet.'
'Perhaps you'd like to take my luggage?' she suggested pointedly.
'Or you could do it yourself?'
Kat stared at him in disbelief. 'I beg your pardon?'
'I'm the engineer,' he said with a shrug. 'Not a baggage handler.'
Somehow she kept her smile fixed to her face. No point in getting into an argument with a deck-hand but she would certainly speak to his boss about his attitude. He would learn soon enough that nobody spoke to a Balfour like that. 'Then perhaps you could show me to my cabin,' she said coolly.
'My pleasure.' The man smiled. 'Follow me.'
Kat hadn't carried her own bags since she'd been expelled from her last school. These were heavy and they were cumbersome—and on the too-high shoes she was wearing, it wasn't the easiest task in the world to walk across the gleaming deck with any degree of grace.
If that was bad, then it suddenly began to get worse because just then they arrived at her cabin—and Kat looked around in disbelief. It had been ages since she'd stayed on a yacht, but in the past she had always been given the best and most prestigious accommodation available. Something near the deck, where you could climb out of bed and wander straight outside in the morning and be confronted by the ever-moving splendour of the sea. Or somewhere a little farther down towards the centre of the vessel—which meant that you were in the most stable part of the boat and buffeted from the possibility of too much movement.
Kat looked around. It was tiny. A cramped little bunk and barely any wardrobe space. No pictures on the walls and, even worse, no porthole! And someone had actually left a drab-looking piece of clothing hanging on the back of the door! She dropped her bags to the ground and turned to the man. 'Listen—'
'The name's Mike,' he interrupted. 'Mike Price.'
She wanted to tell him that his name was of no interest to her and that by the time the day was out he would be looking for a new job, but right then there were more pressing matters on her mind than the man's crass inefficiency and overinflated sense of his own importance. Kat took in a deep breath. 'I think there's been some sort of mistake,' she said crisply.
'This cabin is much too small.'
'It's the one you've been assigned.' He shrugged his shoulders. 'Better take it up with the boss.'
Kat gritted her teeth. If only she knew who the boss was! But by now she knew she couldn't possibly lose face by asking this unhelpful man. 'I don't think you understand—'
'No, I don't think you understand,' interrupted the engineer brusquely. 'The boss likes his staff to put up and shut up—that's why he pays them so well.'
'But I'm not a member of staff,' she protested. 'I'm a guest here.'
The man's eyes narrowed and then he laughed—as if she'd made some weird kind of joke. 'I don't think so. Or at least, that's not what I've been told.'
Kat felt the first tremor of apprehension. 'What are you talking about?'
Jerking his head in the direction of the garment which had caught her attention when she'd first walked in, Mike reached out and plucked it from the hook before handing it to her.
Kat looked at it blankly. 'What's this?'
'What's it look like?'
It took her a moment to realise—since it wasn't an item of clothing she was familiar with. 'An… an apron?' Momentarily, Kat's fingers tightened around the heavy fabric before she pushed it back at him, her heart beating wildly. 'What the hell is going on?'
Mike frowned. 'I think you'd better follow me.'
What could she do, other than what he suggested? Start unpacking all her expensive clothes and attempt to start storing them away in that rabbit's hutch of a room? Or maybe she should do what her gut instinct was telling her—which was to get off the wretched boat and forget about the whole idea of a holiday at sea.
She began to follow him through a maze of wood-lined corridors until at last he threw open a set of double doors and Kat quietly breathed a sigh of relief. Now this was more like it.
The room in which she now stood was the polar opposite of the poky cabin she'd just been shown. This had the enormous dimensions she was used to—a grand dining salon set out on almost palatial lines. Inlaid lights twinkled from the ceiling, but these were eclipsed by the blaze of natural light which flooded in through sliding French windows which opened up on to the deck itself.
There was a dining table which would have comfortably seated twelve people—though Kat noticed that only two places had been laid and used. Various open bottles were lined along the gleaming surface and candle wax had dripped all over a bone-china plate. At its centre was a beautiful blue-glass platter of exotic fruits and next to it sat a crystal goblet of flat champagne along with a carelessly abandoned chocolate wrapper.
Kat's lips pursed into a disapproving circle—wondering why on earth a member of staff hadn't bothered to clear it away. 'What a disgusting mess,' she observed quietly.
'Isn't it?' agreed Mike, laughing. 'The boss sure likes to party when he parties!'
So at least she now knew that the 'boss' was a man. And an untidy man, by the look of things. With a sudden smooth purring of powerful engines, the boat began to move—and Kat's eyes widened in surprise. But before she could register her inexplicable panic that they were setting sail so soon, something happened to wipe every thought clean from her mind.