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Мортимер Кэрол

Undying Love

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CHAPTER TWO

SHANNA’s breath left her in a hiss. Fashion Lady now belonged to Rick Dalmont! She couldn’t believe it. Fashion Lady had become her lifeline the last year, had given her something worthwhile to do after Perry’s death six months ago. And Fashion Lady had continued to thrive under her control, her natural flair for what was fashionable and what would interest the fashion-conscious woman of today increasing the magazine’s circulation considerably.

And now it all belonged to Rick Dalmont. ‘I’ll have to leave,’ she said dully.

‘Er——’

‘Yes?’ Her tone was sharp at her brother’s hesitation, sensing there was more to come.

Henry looked anxious. ‘Part of the deal was that you would stay on for at least a transition period.’

‘And how long is that?’ she frowned.

‘Six months,’ he revealed reluctantly.

Shanna rose slowly to her feet. ‘No, Henry,’ she told him coldly. ‘You had no right to sign a deal like that without consulting me. Or were you asked not to?’ she realised sharply.

Henry looked sheepish. ‘I knew you’d never go for it——’

You knew?’ she accused.

‘All right, both Rick and I knew.’

‘Then you were both right,’ she snapped. ‘I could never work for him.’

‘But I’ve signed the contracts now!’

‘But I haven’t,’ she pointed out stiffly. ‘You knew I would never agree to it, Henry,’ she shook her head. ‘And your signature can’t commit me to anyone.’

‘You’re contracted to Fashion Lady, regardless of who owns it.’

‘Then I resign,’ she snapped.

‘Your contract requires three months’ notice,’ he reminded her.

‘I rescind all right to the money owed me,’ Shanna told him. ‘Just give me my references.’

‘I can’t do that,’ Henry shook his head. ‘I’m no longer your employer. And if you leave now Rick would sue you and me for breach of contract.’

‘Then let him!’ Her eyes flashed in challenge.

‘Shanna, I signed my part of the bargain in good faith.’ Henry’s voice lowered pleadingly. ‘One breach of the contract could ruin the whole deal.’

She glared at her brother. ‘Then it will have to ruin it!’

‘And the Chronicle could go under!’

She frowned, searching her brother’s face, seeing the lines of worry there, the strain he had been hiding from her. ‘That bad?’ she said softly.

‘That bad,’ he nodded grimly.

‘Rick Dalmont wouldn’t call off the whole deal just because I won’t work for him!’

‘He will,’ Henry said with certainty.

‘He—will?’

Her brother nodded. ‘He refused to even consider signing the contract until you were included in it.’

‘God,’ she said shakily.

‘It’s normal practice for senior staff to stay on after such a negotiation,’ Henry pushed his point as he sensed her confusion.

Nothing about Rick Dalmont is normal,’ she flashed. ‘You know why he’s done this, Henry. I won’t go out with him, so he’s forcing me to relate to him from a work point of view.’

‘That’s rubbish,’ he dismissed abruptly. ‘I told you, we’ve been discussing the deal for months.’

‘And when did I enter into it?’

‘About—Well, I——’ Henry broke off, frowning.

‘About two weeks ago, right? Before that I’m sure he had no interest in the staff of Fashion Lady,’ she scorned.

‘That he didn’t give a damn if they stayed or went.’

‘That isn’t true,’ her brother blustered. ‘The future of the staff of Fashion Lady has always been high on my list of priorities.’

Your priorities, Henry,’ she pounced triumphantly. ‘Rick Dalmont doesn’t give a damn about the little people who get in his way. He told me so himself.’

‘No one at Fashion Lady is in his way.’

‘I will be. His being my boss won’t make the slightest difference to how I feel about him personally. I don’t like him, nothing will change that.’

‘You don’t have to like him, just work for him.’

‘That isn’t what he wants, and you know it,’ Shanna sighed. ‘Henry, how could you do this to me?’ she groaned. ‘You’ve seen the way he follows me, the way he never stops looking at me. I’ll be handing in my notice—I have to, Henry,’ she insisted as he went to protest. ‘But don’t worry, I’ll give him his three months. With any luck he’ll leave the acquisition of Fashion Lady to one of his hirelings.’

But she knew he wouldn’t, knew this was just the opportunity Rick Dalmont had been waiting for. She wasn’t conceited enough to think he had bought Fashion Lady just to get a hold over her, but she felt sure he would lose no opportunity in using it as such. She would have to be very careful of Ricardo Dalmont in future; he didn’t play by any rules she knew, in fact he didn’t play at all!

Everything seemed normal when she went in to work on Monday morning; no high-powered executive was waiting for her to tell her of her new employer. Gloria, her secretary, sat in her normal place behind her desk, handing over the mail and messages that had already come in.

But Shanna knew that she was different, that inside she was a seething mass of emotions. If Rick Dalmont thought he was going to breeze in here and take her by surprise as the new owner of the magazine then he was going to be out of luck; she intended greeting him as coolly as ever. And she didn’t intend that he should have the upper hand in anything.

‘Gloria,’ she buzzed through to her secretary, ‘get Mr Dalmont of Dalmont Industries for me. He’s at the Excellence, I believe.’

Rick Dalmont?’

‘That’s the one, Gloria,’ she said lightly, releasing the intercom button. Gloria was a good secretary, and had worked for the previous editor too, but even her usually unruffled demeanour had been unnerved by the mention of Rick Dalmont. He would have that effect on most women, and as most of the staff at Fashion Lady were women she envisaged more than a little hero-worship once it was known he was the new boss.

‘Mr Dalmont, Shanna,’ Gloria announced a few minutes later.

She picked up the blue telephone on her desk that matched the blue and white décor of her executive office. The cover of Fashion Lady was always in blue and white, and for the most part so was Shanna’s office. Blue was a colour she tended to avoid away from work.

‘Mr Dalmont?’

‘Shanna,’ he returned throatily.

‘I believe we should meet, Mr Dalmont.’ Her tone was briskly businesslike as she imagined his mocking humour at the other end of the telephone.

‘You’ve spoken to Henry?’ he drawled.

She could now visualise the look of satisfaction on his smug face. ‘I’ve spoken to him,’ she acknowledged. ‘Would twelve o’clock in my office be convenient?’

‘Are you inviting me out to lunch, Shanna?’ he taunted.

Her mouth tightened, the gleam of revenge in her eyes making them glow deeply green. ‘I’m inviting you to my office at twelve o’clock,’ she told him stiffly.

‘I’ll be there.’ He rang off abruptly.

And so would she. She could sense his feeling of triumph even over the telephone, and she was determined he wouldn’t know any more such feelings where she was concerned. He had won this round, and she would see that Henry didn’t have to go back on his word as a business man because of her, but Ricardo Dalmont wouldn’t win any more rounds over her. She was going to be one step ahead of him from now on. Ignoring him hadn’t worked, being polite to him hadn’t either, she would have to try and make sure she stayed that one step ahead of him in future.

She had warned Gloria to buzz through to her office when Rick Dalmont arrived, and it was exactly twelve o’clock when the single buzz alerted her.

She moved smoothly to her feet, ethereally thin in the black dress, her black hair caught in at her nape, her eyes like twin jewels above her high cheekbones.

Rick Dalmont’s eyes widened appreciatively as she went out to greet him, those same dark eyes narrowing at her formality.

‘Please come in, Mr Dalmont,’ she invited coolly, vaguely irritated by the way Gloria couldn’t seem to stop staring at the man. Admittedly he looked very handsome in a fitted iron-grey three-piece suit and snowy white shirt, but he was only a mere man after all. She didn’t notice the power that emanated from the force of his body, or the shrewdness in the dark eyes, the determination on the sensuous mouth. She should have noticed all those things about him, but she didn’t, was blind to it all. Perhaps if she had noticed…

She opened her office door for him to enter, standing back as silence fell over the seven people waiting inside the room, all of them looking at Rick Dalmont with open curiosity. Rick’s reaction to this unexpected meeting with Fashion Lady’s heads of department was harder to discern, and a hard mask fell over his face as he raised dark brows at her in acknowledgment of the first round going to her.

‘We’ll discuss this over lunch,’ he told her softly, a smile to his lips, only the flare of anger in his dark eyes telling her it would be far from a pleasant conversation.

She moved forward hastily, and silence fell over the room where conversation had begun to buzz as Rick’s identity was realised. Her body moved gracefully beneath the black dress, the heels on her sandals adding to her height. ‘I’m sure you all know Mr Ricardo Dalmont,’ she introduced unnecessarily, knowing that they all realised who he was. ‘What you aren’t yet aware of is that he is now our new boss.’ She turned to him with a challenging smile, the conversation behind her increasing to a roar as the information was absorbed and disbelieved. Like her, her heads of staff had had no idea a takeover was in the offing. Henry had certainly played this close to the ground, and she didn’t need two guesses at whose instigation that had been.

Rick met her challenge with an arrogant inclination of his head. ‘Mrs Logan has been—premature in her announcement,’ he drawled reproachfully. ‘I had meant to talk to you all when Mr Blythe was present. But as I was here to take Mrs Logan out to lunch she thought I should have a few words with you before we leave.’ It was his turn to give Shanna a challenging look, triumphantly so.

Shanna was so angry that she didn’t hear a word he said over the next few minutes, but she could see by the pleased expressions on her colleagues’ faces that they liked what he was saying. He might think he had just trapped her into having lunch with him, but he was wrong, no one forced her to do anything she didn’t want to do. And she didn’t want to have lunch with Rick Dalmont.

‘So I can assure you all that I will make as little change in the format of Fashion Lady as I can,’ he concluded. ‘I look forward to working with you, ladies—and gentleman,’ he acknowledged the single male head of department in the room with the six ladies. ‘A little discrimination in reverse?’ he mocked.

Joe Deane gave an appreciative laugh. ‘I have no complaints.’

‘I don’t think I would either.’ Rick looked at the women with open appreciation.

‘If you’ve quite finished?’ Shanna said icily. ‘We still have a magazine to run,’ she reminded him curtly.

Rick’s eyes narrowed dangerously before he turned to smile at the others. ‘I’m sorry I kept you so long,’ he told them smoothly. ‘I’m sure I’ll meet you all later, individually, in the week.’

Shanna could have cringed at some of the open smiles of encouragement on some of the faces of the women she could have sworn were hardbitten career women. Was no woman immune to this man’s rakish charm!

‘That was not only unethical,’ a cold voice of gravel and honey told her softly. ‘It was also unprofessional,’ Rick bit out tautly; the two of them were completely alone now, and the tension between them was almost unbearable.

‘Unprofessional?’ she echoed quietly. ‘You don’t call buying this magazine without even informing the editor unprofessional or unethical?’ she demanded angrily.

He shrugged broad shoulders. ‘It isn’t required of me to tell you anything.’

‘Not even when I’m included in the deal?’ she snapped.

‘As editor of the magazine, of course,’ he drawled.

‘Of course!’

Again he shrugged. ‘It’s normal practice——’

‘For senior members of staff to stay on after such a negotiation,’ she finished dryly. ‘You coached Henry very well, Mr Dalmont, he used exactly the same argument.’

‘Did it work?’ He leant casually back against her desk.

‘No!’ she told him curtly, holding out an envelope to him. ‘I’m giving you three months’ notice.’

He took the envelope, putting it away in the breast pocket of his jacket. ‘Can you train your replacement in that time?’ he enquired coolly.

Shanna bit back her chagrin with effort; he hadn’t even tried to talk her out of leaving, damn him. ‘I’m sure I can,’ she confirmed waspishly.

He nodded. ‘I think so too.’

‘You don’t seem—surprised,’ she couldn’t prevent the words spilling out of her mouth.

‘I’m not,’ he shrugged. ‘You’re an independent lady, you don’t like being manoeuvred.’

‘You’ve learnt that much about me at least!’ she snapped.

Rick moved closer, his aftershave tangy and pleasant to the senses, as was the good tobacco in the cheroots he smoked, their aroma clinging to his clothing. ‘I’d like to learn a lot more about you—if you would let me.’

Her eyes flashed deeply green. ‘No!’ she took a step away from him. ‘I’ve already told you, I’m not interested. Just leave me alone, Rick.’

‘Rick,’ he repeated softly. ‘I think that’s the first time you’ve ever called me that.’ He touched her cheek with gentle fingers. ‘It makes a pleasant change after the cold “Mr Dalmont” I’ve been used to from you.’

She had realised her slip as soon as she said his name. But she was beginning to tire of this man’s constant pressure on her; she hadn’t slept well the night before, and she felt as jumpy as a kitten about this man as a result of that. ‘It won’t happen again,’ she told him stiffly.

‘Won’t it?’ he derided confidently. ‘I have a feeling it will happen a lot in future. You see, I am the new boss around here, and I like my senior employees to call me Rick. Let’s go to lunch, hmm?’ he taunted. ‘I have a lot of things to discuss with you.’

‘No, I——’

‘Concerning the magazine,’ he gave her a sideways glance.

Shanna eyed him warily. ‘Is that all?’

Dark brows rose mockingly. ‘I can’t promise not to throw in a few personal remarks of my own, but for the most part—yes, that’s all,’ he mocked.

‘A business lunch?’

‘Exactly,’ he agreed with satisfaction.

She still didn’t trust this man, knew that he was capable of lying to get his own way. But for now she had to fall in with his plans, she owed him a certain amount of loyalty as the new owner of Fashion Lady. ‘I’ll just go and tell Jane I’m leaving,’ she nodded coolly.

‘Your assistant editor?’

He certainly didn’t forget much, she had only briefly introduced him to Jane Meakins, her assistant editor, and yet he had remembered her. She didn’t know why that should surprise her, she doubted many things escaped Rick Dalmont’s notice. ‘I shouldn’t be long,’ she told him abruptly. ‘If you need anything I’m sure my secretary, Gloria, would be pleased to help you,’ she added with veiled sarcasm.

‘I won’t need anything,’ he drawled, making himself comfortable in the chair behind her desk.

‘Trying it out for size?’ she taunted.

He gave her a pitying glance. ‘Editor of a women’s magazine is not something I had in mind for my future!’

Shanna shot him an impatient look before leaving the room, wondering how one man could induce such violence in her; simply to be with him now made her want to fight or scream at him. And they were both destructive emotions. But also ones that made her feel vibrantly alive, something she hadn’t felt for a long time. And she didn’t thank Rick Dalmont for arousing such emotions now. Three months of working for him; it could be the longest three months of her life!

He was frowning when she went back into her office several minutes later, standing up ready to leave. ‘Do you actually like the décor in this room?’ he grimaced.

‘It’s very—effective.’ She shrugged into her jacket with a little help from him, moving away as she realised how close he had suddenly become.

‘It’s disgusting,’ he said bluntly, opening the door for her. ‘Your predecessor had abominable taste.’

Her eyes widened as she looked at him. ‘How do you know I didn’t choose it?’

‘You have too much style.’ He smiled at her gasp. ‘You’re a classy lady, Shanna Logan. That’s part of your attraction for me. You have style from the tip of your head to your toes.’ He handed her into the black London taxi he had miraculously managed to flag down in the busy lunch-hour traffic. ‘The Savoy,’ he instructed the driver, getting in beside her.

She sat back, very conscious of the length of his thigh pressed against hers as he deliberately sat as close to her as he could, although there was plenty of room on the seat the other side of him. ‘You’ll have to change your eating habits if you’re going to claim this lunch on Fashion Lady’s expenses,’ she taunted.

His mouth twisted. ‘Dalmont Enterprises can pick up the tab for this one,’ he smiled. ‘And get the decorators into your office first thing tomorrow, will you? It must give you nightmares!’

‘Yes,’ she admitted reluctantly. ‘But Henry always thought it was——’

‘Effective,’ he echoed her description of earlier mockingly.

‘Yes,’ she confirmed defensively.

Rick Dalmont was obviously known at the Savoy, from the doorman to the maître d’, and one of the best tables in the restaurant was made available to them. It obviously paid to have influence and notoriety; the only time she had brought one of the so-called stars here after an interview for the magazine she had had trouble getting a table at all.

‘Tell me, Mr Dalmont,’ she said once they had ordered their meal. ‘If you knew—expected me to hand in my notice, why did you make my being editor part of the deal?’ She looked at him with cool green eyes.

He sat back, satisfaction and triumph in every line of his body. ‘It gives me three months with you I wouldn’t otherwise have had.’ He smiled at her puzzled frown. ‘Making you—as editor,’ he taunted. ‘Part of the deal, makes you feel obliged to at least work your notice. I’m sure Henry has explained to you the pitfalls of leaving a job without references. Also it could affect the rest of the deal I have with him if you leave now. But I’m sure you know all this, otherwise you would already be walking. Wouldn’t you?’ he prompted confidently.

‘Very clever, Mr Dalmont,’ she said tautly.

His mouth quirked. ‘Why do I get the impression that was an insult?’

Green eyes clashed with black. ‘Because you’re a very astute man, Mr Dalmont!’

He laughed softly. ‘And you’re a fascinating woman, Shanna,’ he said without rancour. ‘And the name is Rick. I told you, I like all senior members of staff to use it.’

She eyed him sceptically. ‘Those poor people you assured you would make no changes to Fashion Lady?’ she derided hardly.

His mouth tightened. ‘You doubt my word?’

Shanna gave him a considering look. ‘Not at all. I’m sure that “as little change in the format as you can” will mean exactly that, as little change as you can accept until you have the magazine exactly as you want it!’

His brows rose in silent appreciation of her deduction, as if he hadn’t expected her to be that intelligent.

She sighed. ‘I grew up in the world of business, Mr—Rick,’ she amended reluctantly. ‘My father built up his empire during my childhood, and because my mother died years ago he used to discuss his business with Henry and me.’

‘The Stock Exchange for breakfast, hmm?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded.

‘Sounds similar to my own childhood.’

She recoiled from any similarity between herself and this man, regretting telling him even the little she had. ‘I doubt it,’ she derided. ‘We were rich, but not that rich.’

His eyes darkened at the barb, although luckily the arrival of their lunch prevented the biting reply he had looked about to make. ‘Let’s just enjoy the meal,’ he suggested once their food had been served. ‘I don’t like to argue while I eat.’

‘I can’t argue with you, I work for you.’

His hand grasped hers as it lay on the table-top. ‘At least give me a chance to be pleasant to you. I can assure you I don’t usually get as ruthless with women as I have been with you.’

Shanna purposefully disengaged her hand from his. ‘As you said, let’s eat.’

He gave an impatient sigh, but as he picked up his cutlery she knew they were to at least eat in peace.

‘What do you think of Jane for my replacement?’ she asked as they drank their coffee, having decided it was time for the ‘business’ discussion he had asked for.

Rick frowned, giving the idea some thought. ‘No,’ finally came his blunt answer.

She held back her sharp retort with effort. When she had taken over Fashion Lady a year ago Henry had more or less given her complete control, to do what she felt best for the magazine, to make what decisions she felt were necessary, and without being conceited she knew that the majority of them had been the right decisions. For her to have consulted Rick Dalmont at all just now had been hard enough, to have him turn down her suggestion so emphatically was a damned insult.

‘Why not?’ she snapped in challenge.

He shrugged. ‘I want someone with a new approach, not a staff member who still has her loyalties to you and the new projects you started.’

‘Then you agree I’ve given Fashion Lady some input?’ Her sarcasm was barely contained.

Rick raised dark brows at her vehemence. ‘It’s good to see that something can fire your interest.’

‘Plenty of things do that, Mr Dalmont!’

‘But not me?’

‘No, not you! Now about Jane——’

‘I said no,’ he rasped.

‘And that’s the last that will be said on the subject?’ she scorned.

‘Yes!’

She drew in a deep controlling breath. ‘Very well,’ her tone was once again cold and remote, ‘I’ll see about advertising for a replacement.’

‘It was your decision to leave, Shanna,’ he reminded softly.

‘And I don’t regret it for a moment!’ She stood up. ‘If you’ll excuse me, my lunch-hour was over long ago.’

Rick stood up too, putting some money down on the table to cover the bill. ‘I didn’t think you had noticed,’ he taunted, his hand firm on her elbow as they left the restaurant together.

‘I noticed,’ she derided. ‘But it’s your time…’

‘In that case,’ his mouth tightened, ‘I’d like you to spend the afternoon with me at my hotel, discussing business, of course.’

‘Of course,’ she said dryly. ‘I have too much to do at the office, Mr Dalmont,’ she refused.

‘Some other time, eh?’ he mocked.

‘I doubt it.’

‘So do I,’ he grinned, suddenly looking younger. ‘I wish you would reconsider your decision to leave, Shanna. With a few changes, and your dedication,’ he taunted, ‘Fashion Lady could become the top women’s magazine in the country.’

‘I doubt I would like your changes, Mr Dalmont.’

‘Even if they are for the good of Fashion Lady?’ His eyes were narrowed.

‘In your opinion!’ she scorned. ‘Since when did you become an expert on publishing, Mr Dalmont?’

‘Since I bought Fashion Lady and made it my business to be!’ he snapped angrily, stopping a passing taxi to open the door for her to get inside, leaning on the open window after closing the door behind her. ‘I’ll be seeing you, Shanna,’ he told her grimly before nodding to the driver to take her back to her office.

Shanna stared straight ahead as the taxi moved off into the heavy London traffic, knowing Rick Dalmont’s last words had been in the form of a threat. She would indeed be ‘seeing’ him—he would make sure of that.

It wasn’t until she got back to her office that she realised that, except for her asking about Jane, they hadn’t discussed business at all during lunch. Rick Dalmont was more than distrustful, he was dangerous!

‘What a shock!’ Jane came into her office on her return. ‘I had no idea Fashion Lady was for sale.’

Shanna grimaced. ‘Neither did I until yesterday.’

Jane’s eyes widened. She was a pretty woman in her early twenties, the same as Shanna, her blonde hair kept short and easily styled, her make-up light and attractive, her clothes always fashionably smart. ‘Henry didn’t tell you?’ She sounded surprised.

‘Not until it was too late.’

‘Mm—well, Mr Dalmont does have the financial backing Fashion Lady needs.’

She frowned. ‘You don’t mind that he’s the new boss?’

Jane shrugged. ‘I know it must be difficult for you, with Henry being your brother, but a boss is a boss as far as I’m concerned. The way things are for unemployment in this country at the moment we’re all lucky to have jobs at all.’

Jane’s down-to-earth attitude was something she needed at the moment. They were all lucky to have a job, and jobs as editors didn’t come along every day, she doubted she would be lucky enough to find another one, even with references.

It was something that bothered her as she prepared to go out later that evening. Financially she didn’t need to work, both Perry and her father had left her very well off, but mentally and emotionally…? Heavens, she couldn’t spend her days sitting around the apartment just counting the minutes away! That would only lead to thoughts of Perry, of the last traumatic months of their marriage.

Damn, she was thinking about it already! She had taken great care to fill all of her time, with work in the day, sometimes until she felt like collapsing, and with a round of parties in the evenings. She rarely gave herself time to think, let alone dwell on the past.

And tonight would be no exception! So she would be out of a job in three months, she would find something else, she would make sure she did.

She looked her usual cool and composed self later that evening when she arrived at Steven and Alice Grant’s for dinner. The middle-aged couple were old friends of her father’s, and her own friendship with them had continued even after his death. This evening was a celebration of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and she knew Alice was pleased with the jade figurine Shanna had given her to add to her already extensive collection.

She already knew most of the other guests at the Grant house, and made a beeline for her brother as she spotted him across the room, a smiling Janice at his side.

‘Going somewhere?’ drawled the familiar gravel and honey voice that she was beginning to feel was haunting her.

She schooled her features to remain calm, turning slowly to face Rick Dalmont. Goodness, he was dressed to kill tonight! The black velvet jacket fitted smoothly across his powerful shoulders, the white of his shirt making his skin appear swarthier than ever, his black trousers moulded to the lean length of his long legs. His dark eyes were filled with amusement as he met and held her gaze, his black hair brushed back from its side-parting to rest low over his ears and collar. He held a drink in his hand, evidence that he had been here for some time.

‘Good evening, Mr Dalmont,’ she greeted softly.

He moved closer to her. ‘Hello, Shanna.’

‘We do seem to—keep meeting.’

‘No, we don’t seem to do anything,’ he drawled. ‘But then I’m sure you already knew that.’

‘Steven and Alice are friends of yours?’ She ignored the intimacy of his tone.

He shook his head. ‘I’ve never met them before this evening.’

She gasped. ‘You gatecrashed their party?’

His mouth quirked. ‘I came with Henry and Janice.’

Shanna’s mouth tightened as she shot a resentful glare at her unsuspecting brother. ‘I should have known! Well, if you’ll excuse me——’

‘No,’ his hand on her arm stopped her leaving. ‘I’m still trying to be pleasant, as I tried at lunchtime,’ he smiled tightly. ‘But you angered me then, and you’re angering me now,’ he added tautly. ‘What do you think I can possibly do to you here, Shanna?’ He looked pointedly about the crowded room.

She blushed at the rebuke of his words, and knew she was behaving ridiculously. There were at least forty people in the room; not even Rick Dalmont would try anything here.

‘Exactly,’ he correctly read her thoughts. ‘Although most women don’t show such aversion to the thought of my wanting to make love to them.’

‘I’m not most women,’ she snapped.

‘I agree, you aren’t.’ He took her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm, holding it there with his other hand. ‘Which probably accounts for the way I ache for you,’ he lowered his voice seductively. ‘Put my plain speaking down to my Spanish ancestry,’ he chuckled at her tight-lipped outrage. ‘I want you very badly, Shanna.’

‘You told me that the other evening,’ she dismissed abruptly. ‘And what you’re talking about is sex, Mr Dalmont, not making love.’

‘The way I would worship your body it would be making love,’ he murmured against her earlobe.

‘I——’

‘Ah, Shanna, you found Rick,’ Alice Grant, an attractive woman in her late forties, beamed at them both. ‘With the rush of the Sinclairs arriving at the same time as you I completely forgot to tell you Mr Dalmont had already arrived with Henry,’ she told Shanna hurriedly. ‘And how silly of you to think we wouldn’t have room for your—for Rick,’ she corrected awkwardly. ‘We’ve all been so worried about Shanna, Mr Dalmont,’ she confided to the silently watchful man at Shanna’s side. ‘We all miss Perry enormously, but Shanna really is too young and lovely a woman to deny her company to some lucky man.’

Much as she liked Alice Grant, who was the nearest thing she had to an aunt, Shanna could cheerfully have strangled her at that moment. And this ‘lucky man’ was going to be told a few home truths as soon as they were alone! How dared he have implied to Alice that he was her partner for this evening!

‘I do consider myself very lucky, Mrs Grant,’ Rick drawled confidently. ‘And I’ve also been very worried about Shanna. But she has me now, don’t you, sweetheart?’ He looked down at her in mocking challenge.

Anger lit up her eyes. ‘I——’

‘Ah, the Daniels have arrived,’ Alice sighed her relief. ‘Steven’s boss,’ she confided softly. ‘I’ll talk to you both later,’ and she hurried to be at her husband’s side as he greeted the other couple.

Shanna wrenched away from Rick Dalmont, breathing deeply in her agitation. ‘What did you tell Alice when you arrived?’ she demanded to know.

He met her gaze with bland innocence. ‘That you were working late and would meet me here as soon as you could get away.’

‘You—I—And Henry went along with that?’ she gasped indignantly.

‘Why not?’ he shrugged. ‘I told him the same thing when I spoke to him on the telephone and he told me you were all going to a dinner party this evening.’

‘You arrogant—My God, I can’t believe this!’ she shook her head. ‘You have the cheek of the devil!’

He nodded. ‘Some people have even claimed we’re related,’ he said with amusement. ‘But I doubt Alice would understand if you tried to explain the true facts to her. She’s a romantic lady, and she thinks that by seeing me you’re finally getting your life back together after your husband’s death. Don’t ruin her evening, will you?’ he mocked.

‘What about mine?’ she bit out.

‘Yours is already ruined,’ he shrugged dismissively. ‘Look, I’ll be on my best behaviour, okay?’

‘That isn’t good enough! I don’t——’

‘Behave yourself!’ Rick rasped as Henry and Janice walked over to join them. ‘Save your insults for when we’re alone and stop behaving like a child! Just think of this as an exercise in employer/employee relations.’

‘I don’t want any sort of “relations” with you,’ she snapped.

He gave her a mocking smile before turning to charm her brother and Janice. The last thing she needed was an example of his lethal charm at work, and she was too angry to notice the curious looks her brother kept shooting her. And she didn’t want to feel angry either, didn’t want to feel anything for this man, not even dislike.

‘By the way, Henry,’ Rick gave Shanna a sideways glance, ‘Shanna has already introduced me to some of the staff at Fashion Lady.

Henry frowned his puzzlement. ‘She has?’

‘Mm,’ Rick nodded. ‘Only casually, of course, on our way out to lunch.’

Henry looked even more puzzled. And well he might after her vehement avowal of dislike of Rick Dalmont over the weekend. To all intents and purposes she had already lunched with him today, and now she was spending the evening with him too!

Rick’s arm moved about her waist, pulling her close against his side. ‘And how could I resist your sister when she asked me out so persuasively?’ he added throatily.

Shanna invited you out to lunch?’ Henry was astounded—and unable to hide it.

Before Shanna could defend any such misconception dinner was announced, and to her chagrin Alice had put Rick Dalmont next to her at the table. His smile of triumph was enough to make her ignore him throughout the meal, although this only seemed to amuse him. Trying to reject this man was like hitting her head against a brick wall, and she just didn’t know what to do next. How pleased he would be if he even knew he was succeeding that far!

‘I like your friends,’ he told her as they circulated after the meal, his hand on her arm refusing to be shaken off as she would have gone alone to speak to Henry and Janice.

‘They like you too,’ she muttered, knowing he had been at his most pleasant as they spoke to the people she knew at this dinner party, his hold on her enough claim of possession for him at the moment. In this lazily charming mood it would be difficult for anyone to dislike him, but she knew the other side of him too well to be fooled for a moment; when thwarted this man was lethal. ‘I think I’d like to leave now,’ she said tightly.

‘What a good idea,’ he nodded. ‘Let’s go and make our excuses.’

‘You don’t have to leave with me,’ she faced him.

He quirked one dark brow. ‘Now wouldn’t it look a little odd if you left and I stayed?’

‘That didn’t seem to bother you earlier when you arrived without me!’

‘Ah, but I had a good excuse for that.’ He looked at her mockingly.

‘All right,’ she agreed tightly. ‘We’ll leave together.’

‘Could I have a word with Henry before we go?’

‘Why not?’ Her voice was taut, her nerves at breaking point. ‘You seem to do everything else you want to!’

Rick laughed softly. ‘I’m glad you realise it.’

Almost everything,’ she amended hardly.

His chuckle deepened. ‘Let’s go and see Henry,’ he prompted lightly.

Her brother was looking very pleased with himself when they joined his group, and Shanna didn’t need two guesses as to the reason for that; he believed she had decided to accept Rick Dalmont after all. She could have told him she intended leaving Rick Dalmont as soon as they were out of Steven and Alice’s door, and she didn’t intend being caught in this position again. So much for keeping one step ahead!—she had taken half a dozen backwards this evening.

.

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