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He watched her. The launch party for the new hit television show was packed with celebrities, many of the women more structurally beautiful than the one he watched, but to Maximilian Hart's mind, she outshone them all. There was a lovely simplicity about her that attracted both men and women, a natural quality that evoked the sense she would never play anyone false. The quintessential girl next door whom everyone liked and trusted, Max thought, plus the soft sensuality in her femininity that made every man want to go to bed with her.
There was nothing hard, nothing intimidating about the way she looked. Her blonde hair was in a soft short flyaway style that invariably seemed slightly ruffled, not sprayed into shape. There were dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. Her face had no sharp lines. Even her nose ended in a soft tilt. And her body was how a woman's should be—no bony shoulders, no sticklike arms, every part of her sweetly rounded and curved, not voluptuously so, not threatening to other women but very inviting to any man.
Though her eyes were the real key to her attraction, their luminous light blue colour somehow suggested that her soul was open for listening to and empathising with anything you wanted to tell her. Nothing guarded about those eyes. They drew you in, showing every emotion, transmitting an almost mesmerising vulnerability that stirred a man's protective instincts as well as the more basic ones.
The wide generous mouth was almost as expressive as the eyes, its soft mobility reflecting the same feelings from a grimace of sympathy to a scintillating smile of shared joy. She had the gift of projecting whatever you wanted from her and you believed she truly felt it, not an actress playing a part. It was a gift that could turn her into a huge star, and not just in the television show he'd bought and had rewritten to showcase what he'd seen in her.
Oddly enough, he wasn't sure she wanted to be one. Her domineering mother wanted it. Her ambitious script-writer husband wanted it. She did what they wanted, never raising any objection to it but there had been occasions when Max had glimpsed a lost look on her face—moments when she thought no-one was watching, when she wasn't required to be someone else's creation, when she was not on show.
She was on show tonight and the party people were flocking to her, wanting to share her spotlight, fascinated by her unique charisma whether they wanted to be or not. The crowd around her kept shifting, changing, forced to give way to others who wanted a piece of her if only for a little while. Although Max noted that those most closely connected to her life left her to shine alone.
It didn't surprise him. Neither her mother nor her husband enjoyed the role of background person, which they inevitably became if they attached themselves to her in public. He tore his gaze away from her to glance around, unsurprised when he spotted her mother schmoozing up to a group of television executives, increasing her network of contacts she could use. Max had disliked dealing with her. Unavoidable since she had appointed herself her daughter's agent. He kept any business meeting with her short and coldly rebuffed any attempt at a more personal connection with him.
Pushy, full of her own ego, Stephanie Rollins was the worst kind of stage-mother. Her vividly dyed carrot-red hair yelled notice me, remember me, even without its butch shortness, which accentuated her abrasive attitude of I'm as good as any man and better than most. Though there was nothing butch about her body, which she dressed with in-your-face sexiness; cleavage on show, tight skirts, extremely high heels to bring attention to her shapely legs.
Everything was used as a weapon in her fight to win her own way and there was nothing Max liked about her. Even the name she'd chosen for her daughter—Chloe—seemed deliberately artful, aimed at being remembered. Chloe Rollins. It rolled off the tongue, yet it always struck a false note with Max. It seemed too contrived for the person he saw in Chloe. Something simple would have suited her better.
His mouth twitched with amusement at the fanciful addition of his own surname. Marriage had never appealed to him. He didn't want a wife. Sexual urges were satisfied with one woman or another and his butler and cook did everything else a wife could do. Besides, Chloe Rollins already had a husband and Max didn't believe in poaching other men's wives, not even for a casual affair. Having a messy private life had no more appeal than having a messy business life. Max stayed firmly in control of both.
He wondered what use her husband was making of this party and his gaze roved around the crowd, seeking the handsome charmer Chloe had married, Tony Lipton. He was well named. The guy was full of glib lip but Max didn't think much of his writing ability. None of the lines he came up with had any emotional punch. They invariably had to be edited, sharpened by other writers on the script-writing team for the show. Tony Lipton wouldn't be on the team at all but for his inclusion in the deal with Chloe.
Interesting… he was not currying attention. He was right off at the edge of the party crowd, half-turned away from it and having what looked like a very tense exchange with Chloe's personal assistant, Laura Farrell. Angry frustration on his face. Angry determination on hers. Tony grabbed her arm, fingers digging in with a viselike grip. She wrenched herself free of it and whirled away from him, her face set in seething resentment as she barged through the crowd, making a beeline for Chloe.
Max's instinct for trouble was instantly alerted. There were media people here. He did not subscribe to the view that any publicity—however bad—was good publicity. Any distraction from the success of the show was not welcome, particularly anything unpleasant centred on the star.
He moved, carving his own way through the crowd, but he was coming from the opposite side of the room—impossible to intercept Laura. She reached Chloe first, shoving past the cluster of people surrounding her, moving into a stance of close confrontation, her body language screaming fierce purpose, her hands curling around Chloe's shoulders as she leaned forward and whispered something venomous.
The shock on Chloe's face—the totally stricken look—told Max this was big trouble. Fortunately he was only a few seconds behind Laura, close enough for his tall and powerfully built physique to shield that look from most of the nearby spectators.
'Get out of my way, Laura,' he commanded, the steely tone of his voice startling the woman into releasing Chloe and swinging around to face him.
He moved swiftly, cutting straight past her, curling an arm around Chloe's waist, scooping her close to his side, walking her away from the source of her distress, his head bent towards her, talking intently as though he had something important to impart, his free arm held out in a warding-off gesture that would deter anyone from interrupting the t te- -t te.
'Don't make any fuss,' he dictated in a low urgent voice. 'Just come with me and I'll take you to a safe place where we can deal with this problem in private.'
She didn't respond. She stared blankly ahead and walked like an automaton, carried forward by the force of his momentum. It was as if she had suddenly become a shell of a person with nothing going on inside. Max reasoned that whatever Laura had told her had to have been one hell of a shock to reduce her to this state.
His immediate aim was to protect her, protect his investment in her, and he did it as ruthlessly as he went after anything he targeted. He didn't care what her mother or her husband thought of his action. He steered her straight out of the Starlight Room—the premier function room in this five-star hotel— ignoring calls for his attention, quelling any pursuit of them with a forbidding look. No-one wanted to get on the wrong side of Australia's television baron. He had too much power to cross, and Max had no scruples about using it as it suited him.
He'd booked the penthouse suite for his convenience tonight. Wanting to enjoy his own private satisfaction in Chloe Rollins, he hadn't invited his current mistress to the party so there was no risk of any acrimonious scene if he took Chloe there. It provided a quick and effective escape for her.
He didn't bother asking for her consent. She wasn't hearing anything. Didn't seem to be aware of anything, either. There was no word or sign of protest from her as he led her into an elevator, rode up to the top floor, escorted her into his suite, locked the door behind them and saw her seated in a comfortable armchair.
She did not relax against the soft cushions. Max wasn't sure she even knew she was sitting down. He moved to the bar and poured a generous measure of brandy into one of the balloon glasses provided. He poured himself a Scotch, intent on appearing companionable rather than intimidating, when the brandy jolted her back to life.
She wasn't comfortable with him, never had been. He didn't set out to charm people and was probably too forceful a personality for her to easily like. But right now he was the man in charge and he wanted her to accept that situation, give him her trust, confide the problem and let him resolve it because clearly she was incapable of dealing with it herself and he needed his star actress to keep performing as only she could. Maximilian Hart did not take losses on any project he engineered.
A large balloon glass was shoved forcefully at the hands lying listlessly in her lap. Her dulled mind registered that she had to take it or it would tip over and spill its contents. She wrapped both hands around it to hold it steady.
The hard command rattled her into lifting the glass to her lips. She sipped and liquid fire seared her palate and burned a path down her throat. Heat scorched up her neck, flooded into her cheeks and zapped her brain out of its numbed state. Eyes filled with pained protest automatically targeted the man who had made this happen.
A shudder ran through her at the realisation that he was standing over her, the power that always emanated from him kicking into her heart and causing her stomach muscles to contract.
'That's better,' he said, satisfaction glinting in the dark eyes that shone with too much brilliant intelligence, invariably giving her the impression that nothing could be hidden from him. He'd seen it all, knew it all, and cared only for what advantage it could give him in the world he was master of.
It was a relief when he turned away from her, putting physical distance between them as he strolled over to the armchair facing hers on the other side of a sofa and a glass coffee table, which was placed to serve any occupants of the lounge suite. He sat down, folding his long, strong body into the chair, his elegant hands casually nursing a drink of his own.
He was a strikingly handsome man, though that was a totally inadequate description of him. The dark good looks— black hair, strongly chiselled face, deeply set brown eyes, tanned skin, perfectly sculptured mouth—added to his air of distinction, but it was the aura of indomitable power that gave him a charismatic impact, which made all the rest seem merely a fitting outer framework for the dynamic person who could take over anything and make it work.
Somehow it heightened his sexuality, almost to the point of mental and physical assault on everything that was female in Chloe. She wanted to recoil from it, yet could not switch off the magnetism he exerted, tugging out feelings she shouldn't have with this man. It was alarming to find herself alone with him.
Her gaze jerked around, taking in what was obviously an executive suite. With a king-size bed. Which instantly reminded her of the one Tony had insisted they buy for their bedroom.
Had he used it with Laura?
Is that where he'd so carelessly committed the worst betrayal of all?
'What did Laura Farrell tell you?'
The question pulled her gaze back to Maximilian Hart, forcing her to meet his riveting dark eyes—no escape from telling him the truth. She could feel the pressure of his willpower pounding on her mind and knew he wouldn't tolerate any evasion. Besides, it couldn't be covered up. Laura didn't want it covered up. And neither did she. No argument in the world could make her resume her marriage after this.
'She's been having an affair with my husband.' A double betrayal—a woman she'd trusted as a friend and the man who'd pretended to love her. 'She's pregnant… carrying his child.' The child Tony had denied her because this new television show was too big an opportunity to pass up. Her mouth wobbled at having to speak the final sickening words. 'He won't leave me for her because I'm… I'm his cash cow.'
She closed her eyes as bitter tears welled into them.
'He certainly won't want to leave you,' came the cynical comment. 'The critical question is… will you leave him?'
A huge anger erupted through her, cracking open a mountain of old wounds she had buried in getting on with the life her mother had pushed her into from infancy onwards, cutting off other options, leaving her no choice but to follow the path set down for her. Her marriage to Tony was part of that… the baby she'd been talked out of having. No more, no more, no more, screamed through her mind.
She dashed away the tears with the back of her hand and glared at the man who was querying her response to the situation. 'Yes,' she answered vehemently. 'I won't let you or Tony or my mother sweep this under the mat. I don't care if it hurts my image. I'll never take him back as my husband.'
'Fine!' he said with a casual gesture of dismissal. 'I just wanted to know how best to deal with the situation, given our abrupt departure from the Starlight Room.'
'I won't go back there, either,' she threw at him in fullblown rebellion. 'I don't want to see or talk to Tony or be anywhere near him. Nor do I want to listen to my mother.'
He regarded her thoughtfully for several moments, the powerful dark eyes probing, assessing, speculating, making her feel like a butterfly on a pin being minutely examined. She wrenched her gaze away from his and took a gulp of brandy, wanting its fire to burn away the humiliation of being nothing but a cash cow to the people who had brought her to this.