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Raiden Kuroshiro looked down at the woman standing beside him. Megumi was indeed her name. A beautiful blessing. With flawless white skin, gleaming raven hair and naturally red lips, she looked like a real live version of Snow White. And with her small, svelte body wrapped to perfection in that vivid blue dress, she did look like a fairy-tale princess. There was something regal about her bearing as she received everyone's congratulations on their engagement. Their wedding was exactly ten weeks from tonight.
And he felt absolutely nothing for her.
Thankfully, her feelings for him were as nonexistent.
Which was as it should be.
The reasons he was marrying Megumi, and the ones she had to marry him, didn't necessitate they even tolerated each other. Theirs would be a pure marriage of convenience.
Megumi looked up at him, ultrapoliteness playing on her dainty lips. Though smiling wasn't one of his usual activities, it was easy to answer her smile. Not that he had anything to do with it. Known as an angel, Megumi would get along with the devil himself. Which she did. Raiden was known as a fiend. He'd been called that during his years as a mercenary, and worse as he'd slashed his way to the top of the venture capitalism field and carved himself a permanent place there.
"I can join my mother if you like."
He barely heard Megumi over the traditional gagaku court music and the loud drone of the five hundred people filling the ballroom. It was the first time he'd been with that many members of Japanese society's upper crust in one place. It was his goal not only to belong to that class but to rule it. Megumi knew that, and she was thoughtfully offering to slip away so he could make the most of the event without her hindering presence.
Though it was a tempting offer, he shook his head. He was under said upper crust's microscope, and he knew it would be frowned upon to leave his bride-to-be in their first public appearance together, especially one dedicated to celebrating their impending union.
But at least he didn't have to play the besotted groom, as he would have had to in Western societies. It was a relief that in Japanese society prospective partners in traditionally arranged marriages demonstrated nothing more than utmost courtesy to each other. Which was easy with Megumi. He didn't have to feign gallantry with her.
Not that he liked her. He didn't like anyone. Apart from his Black Castle "brothers"who were integral parts of his own beinghe categorized people in limited roles. He had allies, subordinates and enemies. Megumi fell somewhere between the first two categories. He'd made her position in his life clear, and she seemed accepting of it.
Which she should. He was the wealthiest, most powerful husband and future father of her children she could have. Even if he weren't already the ultimate catch, as an obedient daughter, Megumi would have still married him. Her father wanted Raiden as family at any cost.
And that was the main reason he was marrying her. She was his only path to the one thing he'd dreamed of all his life, what he'd been working to achieve for the past ten years.
Reclaiming his birthright.
But though everything was going according to plan, one thing niggled at him. The other reason he was marrying Megumi was to have full-blooded Japanese heirs. Which meant he would have to
perform. He worried he wouldn't be able to. Not without falling back on what managed to thaw his deep-frozen libido. Fantasizing about her.
It was galling he'd have to resort to this measure to
rise to the occasion, but he was brutally pragmatic. He'd resort to whatever worked. Hopefully only once. With careful timing, it might be all it took to impregnate Megumi.
After conception, it was another major relief that most Japanese wives in arranged marriages mostly retreated to their own quarters, with their lives from then on revolving around their baby. From what he'd been hearing about the society that was still alien to him, in the kind of marriage he was entering, it was accepted that a husband's role was as a sperm donor and financier. His wife mostly relegated him to public social activities and appearances, with his intimacy sought again only when another baby was needed. Which was exactly the kind of marriage he wanted. The only kind he could stomach.
He looked at Megumi as she graciously smiled at another congratulator and wondered at his intense aversion to the idea of sex with her. If anyone knew he thought having sex with such a beauty was such a terrible fate, they'd question his virility. If they knew he'd have to invoke another woman's memory to go through with it, they'd think him pathetic. If they knew that woman had been a fraud, they'd question his judgment. But if they knew that not even finding out the truth about her had lessened her hold over him, it would totally decimate the uncompromising identity he presented to the world.
Not that anyone would ever learn of her. Or of any of his other dark secrets. He'd accumulated unspeakable ones during the twenty years when he'd been The Organization's slave. It was imperative the persona he'd built since his escape ten years ago remained unimpeachable. He wasn't letting anything threaten his chances of reclaiming his heritage.
To that end, he had to follow this society's rules until they became second nature to him. As they were to Megumi and her family. The family that had no idea he was one of them.
They'd never find out he was. But he would become one of them. He'd become a Hashimoto through marriage to
Suddenly, a jolt speared through his body. It originated at his nape and forked down to his toes.
But the all-out alarm wasn't one of danger. He was versed in recognizing threats. This red alert was one of awareness.
Without any change in expression or posture, he threw the net of his senses out before yanking it back, eliminating everything but the source of the disturbance.
The next second, Megumi gripped his forearm.
He frowned. Megumi never touched him. So had his reaction been in anticipation of her touch? But why would she suddenly wring such a jarring response from him?
Turning his gaze down to her, he was relieved to feel no reaction to her sight and now touch, as usual. But the awareness searing through him was intensifying. It took all his control not to look around for its origin.
"Matsuyama-san is approaching."
So that was why she'd grabbed him so urgentlyto draw his attention to the approach of their host. Hiro Mat-suyama. The man who'd gone all-out holding this ball in his mansion. And his bitterest business rival in Japan.
It still felt weird being honored by an adversary. But that was an expected ritual in Japan. A necessary one even. Tradition and decorum were valued above all in business as in society. It would take him a while to get used to that, along with everything else, as he hadn't been raised Japanese.
But then, he hadn't been raised at all. From the age of four years old, he'd been forged. Into a lethal weapon.
He let adversaries glimpse that side of him to keep them in check, showing them what they were really up against. But though Hiro posed his biggest business threat, compared with the monsters Raiden had vanquished in his time, Hiro was harmless. No, his senses couldn't be going haywire to herald his approach.
Turning to Megumi, he saw her eyes fixed, vaguely noted the glazed look in them, the tremor in her lower lip. His focus left her behind as the disruption grew in intensity.
Then he was facing Hiro
and the woman he had on his arm. And the realization was instantaneous.
She was the source of the disturbance.
She was the only female around who wasn't Japanese. Even the non-Japanese businessmen in attendance were married to Japanese women. It was the only way to truly enter society, the path to the most solid form of business alliances in Japan.
Every eye in the ballroom seemed to be following her.
The Japanese had strict parameters for their women's beauty. But most were enamored with Caucasian beauty and coloring. Most men obsessed about Western women, even if few approached them, because many of the qualities they so admired in the safety of fantasy proved intimidating in reality. All of those qualities were present in this woman.
She towered above everyone, flaunted her height even more with high heels. Hiro was tall for a Japanese man at almost six feet, and she stood taller. Only a couple of inches short of looking six-foot-four Raiden in the eyes.
She stood out in every other way, too. Among all the dark-haired people around, she looked like a flame-haired Amazon, tanned, curvaceous, bodacious, oozing sexuality and confidence. And among all the women in soft or bright colors, she was the only one in fathomless black. She looked every voluptuous inch the femme fatale, the opposite of everything considered desirable in a Japanese woman, the antithesis of the petite, porcelain-skinned, delicate and demure Megumi. Though one look at prevalent Japanese porn said she was the epitome of the nation's not-so-secret fantasies.
But he didn't share those fantasies, had none really. That came from the total discipline he'd trained in from early childhood, to hone his skills to inhuman precision. During his years with The Organization, he hadn't made use of the choice female companionship they'd provided to keep their agents placated. Since his escape, he'd remained as fastidious. The one time his shields had come crashing down had been with her.
But this woman was evoking the same
compulsion. When she wasn't even looking at him.
His awareness clung to her even as he forced his gaze to pan to Hiro as he bowed to Megumi. Raiden barely registered that her hand dug deeper into his forearm. Everything in him was focused on the other woman.
Hiro bowed stiltedly in answer to his own compulsory bow, before resuming looking at Megumi. "May I introduce Ms. Scarlett Delacroix, Megumi-san?"
As the ladies exchanged bows, his eyes were dragged back to the woman's profile. He barely tore them away as Hiro turned to him, his gaze colliding with his, the arm around Scarlett Delacroix's nipped waist visibly tightening.
Was Hiro announcing his claim? Telling Raiden not to think of making a move? Hiro assumed he would, with his brand-new fiancée standing at his side?
That would make Hiro more astute than Raiden had thought. He did want to make a move. Which stunned him, because he never did.
But maybe Hiro wasn't reading his aberrant reaction specifically, just believed Scarlett Delacroix was irresistible to any male. He would be right about that, too. If he with his ironclad control felt those unstoppable urges toward that vivid creature, other men must be champing at the bit.
But his reaction was indeed abnormal. He waded in gorgeous women and gave none a second glance. But this woman's effect had nothing to do with her physical attributes. It was identical to her effect. His every sense was clamoring so loud, as if in recognition
This was beyond pathetic. Projecting his reactions to a long-gone and deceitful lover onto other women.
But then he'd never had anything approaching this reaction to any other woman. It was only this woman, this Scarlett
"Scarlett, please meet Raiden Kuroshiro."
Hiro's grudging introduction yanked him out of his insane musings to find her extending her hand. His rose involuntarily to meet it
and static sparked at their touch.
Her hand lurched away, a gasp escaping her full lips, before they spread in an exquisite bow. "Serves me right for going for an all-synthetic, antiwrinkle gown," she said, explaining away the spark. "Now I need grounding."
Her accent was American, her voice too low to fathom clearly in the background din, but its warmth speared through his loins, made him grit his teeth.
Hiro pulled her more securely to his side. "It must be a mere manifestation of your electrifying personality."
Raiden aborted a snort at Hiro's hackneyed comment. But what he couldn't rein in was his rising hackles at Hiro's possessive attitude. He couldn't believe his reaction. He'd never felt confrontational with another man over a woman.
Then she turned fully to him, the smile on her lips not reaching her eyes as they met his for the first time. The bolt that hit him this time almost rocked him on his feet.
Those eyes. Those intense, luminescent sapphire blues. They were the same color of her eyes.
It was really getting ridiculous how he was trying to find similarities between the two completely different women.
"I hear congratulations are in order," Scarlett murmured, her gaze flitting from his eyes to Megumi's before he could hold it.
It couldn't be she was shy. This was a woman who knew her power over men, a power that must have been perfected through years of practice and exercised at will. He was certain there wasn't a diffident cell in that voluptuous body. So why didn't she want to look him in the eye?
"Scarlett had a prior engagement." Hiro turned to Scarlett, his gaze taking on a besotted edge. "But she still honored me with consenting to grace the ball."
"How could I not, when you organize the best balls in the northern hemisphere, Hiro?" Scarlett turned to Megumi with a warm smile. "Between you and me, I was hoping that by meeting the guests of honor of this ball, I might get my first invitation to a high-society Japanese wedding."
"If I'm invited" Hiro shot Megumi a brief glance before resuming his adoration of Scarlett "you certainly will be."
"We'd be honored to have you both grace the wedding." Megumi felt nowhere her usual serene self, her words brittle, her expression forced.
She didn't like Scarlett? Probably not many women did. Scarlett must be an ego crusher, especially to those females who considered themselves beautiful. For she was magnificent.
"I trust this is also Kuroshiro-san's sentiment?" Hiro asked, turning his challenging gaze to him.
In their previous meetings, Hiro had been reserved, but he'd made it clear their enmity would be kept to the financial battlefield. This time, though, he was struggling to hold back his aggression. Because he felt territorial over Scarlett?
Not that she'd given Hiro any reason to fear him. She'd barely looked in his direction so far.
Hiro, on the other hand, was still glaring at him, waiting for his corroboration. Raiden gave it to him with an inclination of his head.
Megumi's hand tightened. Was she urging him to vocalize his response? He knew he had to comply, or it would be taken as an offense. His silence so far had been bad enough.
He didn't feel like making a response. Right now the only thing he felt like doing was snatching Hiro's arm off Scarlett's waist and dragging her away from him.
Still, he said, "Matsuyama-san, Ms. Delacroix, your presence at our wedding isn't only our privilege, it's a necessity."
His deferential words didn't seem to appease Hiro. The man's response was perplexing, since Hiro had not only insisted on holding this ball, but had brought to his attention the very woman he was visually wrestling him over.
Thankfully, the stilted meeting came to an end shortly afterward, and Hiro and Scarlett moved on. Raiden forced himself not to watch them walk away. Not to watch her. But he could no longer bear having Megumi by his side.