MARINA sank back into the embrace of the leather seat and tried to slow her beating heart as the sports car cruised the city streets.
From the moment she'd opened the door to Ronan Carlisle it was as if she'd stepped out of her mundane world and into a fairytale.
No fantasy prince had ever looked more handsome or more potently male. The sight of him had set off a deep-seated fire of need and a ridiculous longing that robbed her of words. She hadn't been able to read his expression. But there'd been a tension about him, as if poised on the brink of decisive action, that held her in thrall with its intensity. Then he'd stepped close and the world had tilted on its axis.
Marina's eyes fluttered shut as scorching desire rose at the memory.
She'd almost expected him to sweep her into his arms and kiss her like he had before, till reason disintegrated in an explosion of new sensations. She'd wanted him to.
But of course he hadn't. The other night had been a mistake. He probably regretted it as much as she should - did.
Instead it had been a chaste kiss, a gentle salutation that a brother might give. A little much-needed encouragement. That's all.
Yet no matter how firmly she told herself that, her reaction was the same. An urgent craving, not only for his approval, but his passion. Her whole body had come alive, awareness ignited as he'd stepped close. Her senses had clamoured for more, more, more.
How stupid was that? She was on fire for a man who viewed her simply as an asset in a business manoeuvre.
She had to cling to that knowledge and keep her feet firmly on the ground. She was no match for his sophistication, could never compete with the type of woman he really wanted. She had to remember what this was all about.
She opened her eyes and slid a sideways glance at him. Even with his jaw clamped hard and his brow furrowed, he was the handsomest man she'd ever seen. He looked almost grim and Marina wondered if he too was having second thoughts about his scheme.
'Tell me if you tire,' he said abruptly. 'We'll only stay at the party long enough to make an impression.'
'I'll be fine,' she murmured, wondering just how big a lie that was. She wasn't worried she'd collapse - her difficulty the night she confronted Wakefield had been due as much to stress as physical weakness. And now after just a few days, she was feeling much stronger.
But would she be able to carry off this masquerade? Despite the new clothes she couldn't imagine anyone believing she'd captured Ronan Carlisle's attention. He could have any sultry, gorgeous beauty he wanted.
And would she be able to hold her own tonight among Sydney's elite? She was a homebody. An ordinary office worker. She had no practice at rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.
She turned her head to stare out the side window. For one unguarded moment she allowed herself to admit the devastating truth. Parading herself as a femme fatale was preposterous. She was sure to be found out.
That was the risk she had to take. If there was a slim chance of setting things right for Seb and Emma and the baby, then she'd do it gladly.
But her secret fear was much worse. That by playing this charade of intimacy with Ronan Carlisle, he might discover how she felt about him. Learn how devastating he was to her peace of mind and her willpower.
That secretly, in some hidden inner chamber of her heart, she wished it was true - that she and Ronan really were lovers.
An hour later, Marina was stunned at how easily she'd slipped into this role of Ronan's devising. No one had shown by word or look that they thought it odd, her being with the most powerful, most drop-dead gorgeous man at the crowded party. Maybe they were all too polite to hint at what they really thought - that she didn't belong.
All she'd had to do was stand close and look like she had eyes for no one but him.
No acting required!
Awareness vibrated through her every time Ronan moved or gestured at her side. It was frightening how attuned to him she was, even now when his attention was on the man who'd come up to discuss business trends. She'd remembered him from Wakefield's reception of course, where he'd waylaid them on their way out. But it was only now she recognised him. After all it wasn't every day you bumped into a senior government minister in the flesh.
Ronan turned and caught her gaze. A shaft of heat seared her. Shaken, she dropped her eyes and bent her head to sip champagne.
The men finished their discussion. The politician excused himself for interrupting them. She smiled and shook his hand, then watched him turn away.
But her smile died as, through the shifting colours of the crowded room, she saw a face she knew. A pair of eyes fixed on her, absorbed. She swallowed hard and froze.
Her illusion of confidence shattered in an instant.
How would he react to her presence? Would he embarrass her in front of everyone, or would he ignore her?
'Marina, look at me.' Ronan's voice was low and compelling.
She turned. 'Did you see him? Wakefield -'
'I know.' He moved in front of her to eclipse the room so she could see no-one else. She tilted her head and looked up into his mesmerising eyes. 'There's no need to be nervous,' he said. 'Wakefield's not going to make a scene. Not with me here to stop him.'
Marina wished she could absorb the confidence that radiated from the big man in front of her. Dread carved a hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach. A few days ago she'd wanted nothing more than a meeting with Wakefield. Now the very idea of it made her feel sick.
Ronan took the glass from her trembling hold and placed it on a nearby table.
'Touch me.' His lips moved bare inches from her face.
She couldn't have heard him right. 'Sorry?'
'Touch me, Marina. Now, while he's looking at us.' His eyes blazed with an inner fire and the curve of his lips as he smiled down at her was a sensual promise.
She swallowed, stunned at how realistic that lover's smile of his looked. Scared by the inevitable reaction it stirred low in her body.
Tentatively she raised her hand, closed her fingers round the soft weave of linen on his arm. The muscle beneath shifted and bunched. She felt the gentle exhalation of his breath on her upturned face. Without thinking she leaned in to him, drawn to his heat and to the subtle male scent that had teased her senses all evening.
'That's it,' he encouraged. 'Perfect.'
For a heartbeat they stared at each other. Then he wrapped an arm round her, drawing her close so his heat seared her right through the thin fabric of her dress. Her breath stopped in her throat at the forbidden images that simple contact evoked.
Ronan turned her towards the full length windows that opened onto the roof garden. They stepped into the warm, scented evening, not pausing till they reached the shelter of a secluded loggia. His fingers splayed across her hip in what must look like a mark of ownership. To her it felt like a brand, pure fire that sizzled across her skin and deep into her soul, marking her very being.
Nonsense! She was letting her imagination run away with her. This was all make-believe.
Here in the shadow of overhanging jasmine they were virtually invisible from inside. But Wakefield must have seen them leave. Was he curious enough to follow them outside?
Ronan obviously thought so. He stayed close enough to look like a lover.
And that's what she had to remember. It was an act. She had to concentrate on playing her part.
She drew a deep breath, heady with the perfume of flowers, and stared out over the spectacular cityscape, fighting to block out all sensation and concentrate on the view. The harbour below them glowed like shot silk with the last reflection of the dying sun. Around it a multitude of lights from the surrounding city had sprung to life like sparkling gems.
'Beautiful.' Ronan's deep voice was like the brush of rich silk across her skin. She looked up and found him watching her, intent. Her stomach plunged in a bottomless dive as excitement sped up her pulse another notch. The shadows of an overhead vine cast his features in shade, but she could make out the strong lines of his throat and jaw, the glitter of his eyes as he looked down at her.
Whatever she'd been about to say died. The passion in his voice, the tension vibrating from his body seemed so real.
A game, Marina. Remember it's a game.
But despite that knowledge, despite the last vestiges of common sense, she responded, swaying closer, forgetting her vow to be strong.
In the distance a melody sounded, a shout of laughter. But here there was only the sound of her heartbeat drumming like a hammer. Her breath, raw and shallow in her throat.
What would it be like if Ronan Carlisle, so virile, so tempting, were to look at her with real desire? Not as a ploy to convince Wakefield. Not because he felt sorry for her, as he had the other night.
Her mind skittered away from the dangerous idea.
'Is he watching?' she asked, hoping Ronan would mistake her breathlessness for a whisper.
He didn't respond, just wrapped his other arm around her and pulled her close, so that the heat of him enveloped her. His elusive male scent invaded her senses, potent and musky, like a taste of velvet against her lips.
Something inside her flared into life, shimmering and exciting.
Staring into his eyes she wondered frantically how she'd got herself into this. She was playing a part but she was way out of her depth. This man who was supposed to be her ally had suddenly become a threat.
Ronan Carlisle was far more dangerous, she now realised, than Wakefield, the man who'd stolen her birthright. More dangerous than any mere business competitor or swindling cheat could ever be.
Ronan was out of her league, a master player in a complex game where she was just a pawn.
He made her feel like she'd never felt before. Like a woman, vibrant and passionate. Wanting.
Wanting what she couldn't have. What she shouldn't want from him.
She opened her mouth to speak. To break the spell of a seductive setting and her own fantasies. Of the passion Ronan projected for the benefit of the man she guessed watched them from the shadows.
But it was too late.
Arms as unyielding as steel drew her up to a body that was all hard muscle and bone and flaring heat. His head lowered, lips warm and sure against hers.
And Marina melted into his embrace, promising herself that she could give herself up to these glorious sensations once. Just one last time to convince Wakefield. And then she'd step away.
Ronan's mouth was surprisingly soft, coaxing her to kiss him back. There was none of the ravaging energy she'd experienced before. Yet this kiss was just as stunning, destroying all thought, inviting complete capitulation.
He lifted a hand to her hair, cupping her head as he sought better access to her lips.
He tasted like sparkling wine and pure, intoxicating man. Like all the sins of temptation put together. And she couldn't get enough of him. She wanted to burrow closer to his warmth, to the easy caress of his mouth, to the exciting hardness of his big frame.
The sensations exploding through her were like fire bursts. They flared and spread, searing every nerve with a need she fought desperately to resist.
But the desires he awakened were too compelling to deny.
She lifted her hands, sliding them up against his shirt, to rest against the heat of his chest. His heartbeat thudded beneath her palm, strong and steady, and her head swam at the intimacy.
It wasn't enough. Involuntarily she squirmed against him, fighting her own weakness. But common sense had deserted her. Instead she gave in to the primitive need that pounded in her blood, slipping her hands down so she could wrap her arms round him, beneath his jacket. Holding him tight, as if he were hers.
He stepped closer, his thighs settling on either side of hers so she was cradled in his intimate heat. His other arm lashed tight round her waist, making breathing difficult.
But she barely noticed. For his tongue slid along her lips, inviting her to open for him. And of course she did, responding mindlessly to the sensuous promise of his expertise.
Heat. Velvety darkness. Mingled breaths. The delicious rasp of tongue against tongue. A shared erotic awareness that scorched all rational thought from her brain. And above all, the rising need for more.
She clutched at him, dimly aware of being bowed back over Ronan's arm by the power of his embrace. He was closer than ever, pushing against her breasts, her hips, her thighs. Comprehensively claiming her mouth.
His arm moved from her waist, slipping down over her hip and then lower still. His long fingers splayed over her bottom, pulling her higher and tighter against his hard body. It was a movement so explicit that she gasped.
Not with surprise or outrage.
With the realisation that she wanted still more.
She wanted everything she'd dreamed of from a lover. All the heat and passion. All the love. Everything she'd never had.
And she wanted it from Ronan.
For an instant the illusion held. Then his mouth relinquished hers and she gulped in a shuddering breath. He straightened, pulling her up with him, but he stepped back a tiny pace too. Enough to keep the illusion of intimacy, but she realised achingly as her body throbbed with unfulfilled desire, not close enough.
Flame scorched her cheeks. It was only the strength of his hands that kept her upright. Her legs trembled with a weakness that had nothing to do with her injuries.
He didn't speak but she saw the way his chest heaved. Lack of oxygen. She'd clung to him like a limpet. It was a wonder he'd been able to breathe at all.
It was a miracle she hadn't climbed up his big body in her desperate passion.
And all he'd done was kiss her.
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