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Leon Maranz lifted a glass of champagne from the server standing just inside the entrance to the large, crowded first floor salon of the exclusive Regent's Park apartment that he'd just been shown into by one of the household staff and surveyed the scene before him. It was the type of social gathering he was very familiar with. A cocktail party in one of London's premier residences, ITS guests, however disparate, unified by one common factor. Wealth.
A great deal of it.
A casual flick of Leon's opaque eyes could tell him that, simply by seeing the unbroken sea of designer outfits the women were wearing, let alone the glint of precious gems at their throats, ears and wrists. The women uniformly had a look about them of pampered, sleek felines, and the men were also uniformly alike in their projection of self-assurance and self-worth in the eyes of the world.
Leon's mouth tightened infinitesimally. That projection was not always a guarantee of the solidity of the worth behind it. Probingly, his dark eyes lanced through the throng, seeking its target. Alistair Lassiter's back was turned to the entrance of the salon, but Leon recognised him instantly. Recognised, too, what he wanted to see. Probably invisible to the rest of the guests, but not to him: a discernible tension in his stance. For a moment longer he held his gaze. Then, his assessing surveillance done, he lifted his glass of champagne to his mouth. But even as he did so he stilled. A woman was looking at him.
She was nowhere near Alistair Lassiter, but Leon could see her at the periphery of his vision. Every finely tuned antenna told him she was levelling a stare at him that had an intensity about it that demonstrated she had no idea he was aware of her scrutiny. But Leon had been on the receiving end of female interest for close on two decadeseven long before he had made the fortune which he knew, cynically, was high prime attraction for women these days. Far and away more attractive to them than the six-foot frame and strong, saturnine looks that had been his appeal when young and impoverished. Years of enjoying all that beautiful females had to offer meant he knew when a woman was looking at him.
And this one was most definitely looking at him.
He took a mouthful of champagne, turning his head slightly as he did so, to move the woman into the central frame of his vision.
She was in the English style, with a fine-boned face, oval, contoured with a delicate, narrow nose and wide, clear eyes. Her chestnut hair was drawn off her face into a chignon that would have looked severe on any woman less beautiful, just as her indigo raw silk cocktail dress would have looked plain on a woman with a less than perfect body. But this woman's body was indeed perfect: slender waist, gently rounded hips and, Leon could see, despite the modest decolletage, generous breasts. The bracelet sleeves of her cocktail frock showed the length of her forearms, and her elegant hands were cupping a glass of mineral water. The hem of her dress skimmed a little way above knee length, displaying long, slender legs lengthened by high heels.
The total impact was, despite the severity of her styleor perhaps because of itstunning, making every other woman present appear overdressed and flawed. Leon felt anticipation fizz through him. Against all his expectations, the evening ahead was clearly not going to be only about business after all
He narrowed his eyes and let his gaze rest on her, acknowledging what she made him feel. The flare of desire
His gaze swept back up to her face, intercepting her scrutiny, ready to make eye contact and register his interest in her, to start to move towards her.
And immediately the shutters came down over her face.
It was like a mask forming over her features. An icy mask that froze her expression.
Froze him out. Blanked him completely. She was looking straight through him as if he were not there, as if he did not exist
as if he were not even the barest part of her universe.
Abruptly, she moved away, turning her back on him. Emotion spiked through himone he had not felt for a long, long time. For one more moment his gaze continued to hold. Then he moved purposefully forward into the throng.
Flavia forced a polite smile to her lips, as if paying attention to whatever it was that was being discussed. She had more on her mind than making polite conversation to her father's guests here tonight. A lot more.
She didn't want to be here, in her father's opulent Regent's Park apartment. The hypocrisy of it nauseated herplaying the pampered daughter of a lavishly indulgent millionaire when both she and her father knew that that was bitterly far from the truth.
What did she care for this stupid cocktail party? For standing around looking expensively ornamental in this over-decorated apartment, designed only to impress and show off her father's wealth? It was awash with glass and chrome and the ostentatious, tasteless extravagance of gold fittings and showy furniture, conspicuous statement pieces, and she could never feel anything but a total alien here.
She wanted to be home! Home in the heart of rural Dorset, deep in the countryside. Home in the grey-stoned Georgian house that she loved so much, with its square frontage and sash windows, filled with furniture that had aged with the house where she had grown up, roaming the fields and the woods all around, cycling the narrow hedged lanes, rambling far and widebut always, always, coming home. Home to the grandparents she'd adored, who had raised her after the tragically early death of her mother, to be enveloped in their loving arms.
But Harford Hall was a world away from her father's glit-teringly deluxe apartment and she was not free to flee, however much she longed to do so.
She shifted her weight from one unfamiliar high heel to the other, sipping at her mineral water and trying to pay attention to the conversation. She had no idea who the couple speaking to her were, but presumably the husband was some kind of businessman who was useful to her father, for her father, Flavia knew, only ever invited people who could be beneficial to him. That was the way he divided up the population of the worldpeople he could use, and people he could toss aside. She, his daughter, counted as both.
For most of her life it had been the lattersomeone to be tossed aside. Ignored and discarded. The way he'd done her mother. Oh, he'd gone to the trouble of marrying her, once she'd found herself pregnant. But that had only, Flavia now knew, been because her grandparents had gifted him a substantial sum of money. Ostensibly it had been to start their married life together, but in reality, Flavia was grimly aware, it had been a bribe and an inducement to marry their pregnant daughter.
Her father had done well out of her mother financially, and the money he'd got had helped provide the capital he had needed to build his business empire. What he had not needed was a wife and child, and barely six months after Flavia had been born her father had packed them both off back to Dorset and taken up with another woman. A wealthy divorcee, as it happened. She had not lasted long, however. Once she'd provided more investment capital he'd moved on yet again.
It was a pattern he'd continued to repeat as he progressively amassed his business fortune. A cynical light glinted sourly in Flavia's eyes. Although these days the women were getting younger and younger, and her father was the one providing the money they wanted to keep themselves looking alluring for him. Her father had got used to having the best, and his wealth had provided it lavishly.
She glanced around. This Regent's Park apartment was worth at least a few million pounds, given its premier location and the glittering lavishness of its decor. It was only one of his properties, however. There was also a house in Surrey's stockbroker belt, an apartment in Paris in one of the best ar-rondissements, a villa in Marbella's Puerto Banus, and another on the beachfront on Barbados.
Flavia had been to none of them, and wouldn't have wanted to. Nor did she want to be here. But three years ago her now-widowed grandmother had needed a hip replacement operation, and her father had been ruthlessly blunt.
'The old bat can have her operation privately, but the money for it will be a loanand you'll repay it by turning up when I want you to chat and smile graciously at my guests. Everyone will say how charming and delightful and well-bred you are, and anyone who thought I was too nouveau bloody riche to swallow will think again!'
She'd longed to tell him to get lost, but how could she have done when the National Health Service waiting list had been so long, and her grandmother, not only in severe pain had also been frustrated by her growing incapacity. And her increasing poverty. Harford Hall, the greystone Georgian house Flavia had been brought up in, was a money pit, like all large, old houses, and maintenance and repairs swallowed her widowed grandmother's dwindling income from stocks and shares. There were no spare thousands left over to pay for a private operation.
So, despite her deep reluctance to be indebted to her father, Flavia had succumbed to his offer, and now, three years later, she was still paying him off in the way he had demanded.
Summoned to London to play the complaisant daughter, dressed to the nines, and chit-chatting, exchanging social nothings with people she couldn't care less about but whom her father either wanted to impress or wanted to do lucrative business with. She was playing a role just as much as if she had been an actress on a stage. A role she hated for its falseness and hypocrisy, with her father treating her in public as if she were the apple of his eye, doting and devoted, when the truth was completely different.
Now, though, it was even more of an ordeal than ever. Since her hip operation, though successful, her grandmother had started to deteriorate mentally, and for the last two years her dementia had been remorselessly worsening. It meant that leaving her even for a few days, as she was doing now, made Flavia even more anxious about her. Although one of her grandmother's carers, who came in regularly to help relieve Flavia for an hour or two so that she could drive into the local market town to get the shopping and other essentials done, was staying with her, it didn't stop the anxiety nagging at her. But her father had been particularly insistent she come up to London this week.
'No bloody excuses!' he'd fumed. 'I don't give a toss about the old bat. You get yourself on the next train. I've got people coming over tomorrow evening, and it's got to look good!'
Flavia had frownedand not just at the summons. There had been an edge to her father's voice that was new. A note of strain. Cynically, Flavia had put it down to discord between her father and his latest girlfriend, Anita, whom Flavia could see across the room, wearing a fortune around her neck. She was a demanding mistress, and maybe her avarice was beginning to grate.
The impression of her father being under new tension had been intensified when Flavia had arrived at the apartment. He'd been shorter with her than ever, and clearly preoccupied.
But not so much that he had not gripped her elbow as the guests started to arrive.
'I've got someone particularly important turning up tonight, and I want you to keep him smilinggot it?' Her father's cold eyes had flickered over her. 'You should be able to hold his interesthe likes his women, and he likes them to be lookers. And that's one thing you're good for! But lose all the damn barbed wire around youwhy the hell you can't be more approachable, I don't know!'
It was a familiar accusation, and one that Flavia always ignored. She was polite, she was civil, and she was sociable to her father's guests, whoever they werebut never more than that. There were limits to how much of a hypocrite she would be.
'Approachable like Anita?' Flavia had suggested sweetly, knowing how much her father hated his girlfriend's predilection for openly flirting with other men.
Annoyance had flared in his face, but he'd snapped back, 'Women like her get results! They know how to make up to a man and get what they want. You don't make the slightest effort. Well, tonight you'd better. Like I said, it's important.'
The edge had been back in his voice, and Flavia had wondered at it. Not that it took too much wondering. Obviously one of this evening's guests was to be someone her father intended to do some highly lucrative deal with, and when money was at stake, increasing his wealth, her father, she thought cynically, put the highest priority on it. And if that meant wanting his own daughter to smarm over some fat, ageing businessmen, it didn't bother him in the least.
Filled with distaste at her father's unsavoury tactics, Flavia had pulled away from him and gone forward to greet the first arrivals, a polite but remote smile on her face. She knew she came across as stand-offish, but there was no way she was going to ape the likes of Anita, and pout her lips and flutter her eyelashes at the influential businessmen her father wanted her to charm!
She glanced unenthusiastically over the chattering guests, and as she did so, she stilled. Something had caught her attention. Correctionsomeone had caught her attention.
He must have just arrived, for he was standing by the double doors that led out into the wide entrance hall of the huge apartment, a glass of champagne in his hand. He was looking into the crowded room, his eyes resting on someone she couldn't see from this angle. She found she was glad of it, because what she wanted to do, she realised with some dim part of her mind, was look at him.
He drew her eye, drew her focusmade it impossible for her to look away. Impossible.
Impressions stormed in her mind.
Tallbroad-shouldereddark-hairedstrong features starkly defined.
He made her want to stare, and that sent a hollowing arrow through her, stilling the breath in her throat.
There was an air about him as he stood there, one hand thrust into his trouser pocket, the other holding his champagne glass, looking tall and lean and very, very assured.
He was a rich man. She could see that easily. Not just because of his bespoke suit and clearly expensively cut sable hair, but because of the aura he projected, the air of supreme control.
A man to draw eyes.
Especially female eyes.