Only it wasn’t Emma.

‘As I said.’ Ever the dutiful daughter, she gave him a brittle smile, then turned on her new and starting to rub high heels. ‘They’ll be bringing out the cake soon.’

She wished they would bring out the cake.

There was the most appalling lull—but only Emma seemed to notice.

The dance floor was still heaving with couples, the tables filled with chatting and laughing groups, but despite her best efforts to join in with a couple of conversations it was hard going.

Dutiful Jake was chatting up the old aunties and making them laugh, and Cindy’s eyes had shot knives when Emma had attempted to join a group of women. All in all she’d left it too late to suddenly join in with the others. Everyone was settled in to their little cliques, making her feel like a wallflower. Then Zarios returned.

‘Looks like you’re stuck with me.’

He took her by the wrist, then led her to the dance floor without asking.

Which was a wise move on his part. Because had he asked, she would have declined—not because she didn’t want to dance, but because of how much she did.

He held her loosely at first, swaying to the heavy beat as she willed her heart and breathing to slow down. The second they did, he pulled her closer.

Was it his looks or his status that made him so appealing? Emma begged to know as his arms snaked around her back. And was it just his reputation that held her back? All she knew was that it was a dizzying combination—want and trepidation, curiosity and nervousness, all there fizzing in each cell of the body he was holding.

‘I don’t like cake…’ Zarios smiled down at her ‘…which gives us more time for dancing.’

‘Oh, but my mother thinks of everything,’ Emma quipped. ‘I’m sure there’ll be a fruit platter.’

‘Forbidden fruit, perhaps?’

‘I’m far from forbidden.’ Emma gave a wry smile as her mother danced past them and practically fractured her father’s rib as, none too subtly, she pointed out the lovely couple dancing, clearly delighted at to how well they were getting on. ‘My mother lives for the day we might get together.’

‘While my father shudders at the thought.’

All the ingrained insecurities of her childhood, all her mother’s deepest fears seemed to seep into her pores. But as his hands spread around her waist and he pulled her just a fraction closer, Emma realised she’d misinterpreted him.

‘He has told me many times that, though he would love nothing more than for us to be together…Well, he knows my reputation. He says he would not be able to look at your father if I were to hurt you.’

Her blue eyes jerked to his, her mind screaming for her to be quiet. But the words were out before she could stop them.

‘Then don’t.’ It was the most blatant flirt—the most blatant acknowledgement of their attraction—but she recovered quickly. ‘Anyway—given you’re seeing Miranda…’

‘We broke up.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I’m not.’ He didn’t miss a beat, either in dancing or flirting, his repertoire as sleek and practised as the body that moved with hers. ‘Maybe we could have coffee or dinner when you are back in the city—somewhere away from our families’ eyes…’

‘Perhaps…’ Emma nodded, trying to shrug, trying to pretend it didn’t matter.

Oh, but it did.

‘Is that a yes?’

‘Yes…’

‘I will ring.’

‘Sure.’ Somehow she managed a casual smile, but her heart was soaring as he pulled her in closer.

‘I like your scent.’

‘It’s just…’ She shrugged, tried to be casual, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember the perfume’s name. ‘I got it for my birthday.’

‘I meant your scent,’ he corrected her, which made her cheeks burn.

She’d never been held like this. He was barely touching her, and they were barely moving, yet it was positively indecent the sensations he evoked. Her internal barometer had shattered, common sense scattering like tiny balls of mercury, irrecoverable as he pulled her right into the circle of his arms. His breath was hot on her ear and suddenly she wanted him to lick it—he didn’t. Lowering his head just a bit further, till she could feel his mouth just inches from her neck, she fought the urge to repeat her mistake of yesteryear. She wanted to turn her face to his like a flower to the sun, to receive the sweet reward of his mouth on hers.

It was a relief when the music ended—a relief to stand apart from him in the darkness as the room broke into song.

Eric smiled broadly as a vast cake was wheeled in, blazing with sixty candles. Still Zarios held Emma’s wrist, his hot fingers wrapped tightly around her flesh as she sang along. Then the candles were blown out and the tent was plunged into full darkness. Tonight she finally received what she’d longed for all those years ago and for way too many moments in between. Finally Emma was rewarded with the prize of his mouth on hers.

Even a vivid imagination couldn’t adequately prepare her for the thoroughness of his kiss, the shocking feel of his tongue sliding into hers, the way his body enveloped hers. He tasted like manna, his scent potently male. It was a thrilling, decadent kiss that she absorbed—a kiss during which he pressed himself so hard into her she could feel the dangerous thick length of him. It was a kiss so consuming that it triggered a dangerous chain reaction—one that made her forget to breathe, forget to think, forget even herself.

If the entire embrace lasted only ten or maybe fifteen seconds it was just as well. Because any more and she’d have come there and then. His timing was impeccable, though, and by the time the last cheer had faded, before the cameras had stopped flashing, his mouth had released hers. She had to peel herself off him and stand in lights that were suddenly blazing. No one had seen them, all eyes were still on her father, yet she felt as if the spotlight was suddenly on her—that surely everyone knew what had just taken place. She felt as embarrassed, almost, as if they’d been caught making love—hell, she felt as if they had been making love. Her panties were damp with arousal, her nipples erect and throbbing beneath her soft dress; so exposed was her want, surely everyone could see it?

What did this man do to her?

She could see Rocco’s eyes narrowing in disapproval, and her mother’s questioning frown as she saw the glow in her daughter’s cheeks.

Zarios was dangerous.

Bad and dangerous—yet irresistible.

It was nearly 2:00 a.m. by the time they all got to bed, and Emma was exhausted.

Peeling off her dress, only in reverence to its price tag did she bother to hang it over a chair in the study. And apart from a lethargic brush of her teeth, the rest of her nighttime routine went to pot. Climbing into the trundle bed in the study, Emma listened to the familiar sounds of the family home—her father coughing, the stairs creaking as her parents went to bed, the bark of a possum in a tree outside. It should have been soothing and familiar, and she was so tired she should have been asleep in a matter of seconds, but she was too aware that Zarios was in situ—that tonight he lay in her bed.

How she wished she were there!

Every creak of the floorboards, every turn of a tap, had her staring into the darkness at the door, terrified that he’d come in.

And she was shamefully, bitterly disappointed when he didn’t.

CHAPTER THREE

EMMA didn’t know what to do.

The sun wasn’t up yet, and the silence of dawn was attempting to soothe her as Emma strode along the beach, her head racing at a thousand miles an hour after an angst-riddled sleepless night.

Damn Zarios for being so irresistible.

And damn her for being so willing.

Anyone might have seen him kissing her and pressing himself into her last night. If the lights had come on even a second earlier…Emma simultaneously cringed and soared at the memory, viewing it as if through parted fingers, wanting to see it, yet horribly embarrassed all the same.

He was a playboy, Emma told herself, walking quickly now. A bored playboy, stuck at a party he probably hadn’t wanted to attend. A restless, oversexed male who’d been looking for diversion, for amusement—and she’d provided it.

Well, no more.

He’d be gone after breakfast and that would be the last she’d see of him.

Unless he called her!

Still, it wasn’t just Zarios and his potent sex appeal that had her head spinning as she strode angrily through the still dawn. Damn Jake, too, for ruining her father’s birthday for her.

If only her parents knew.

If only they knew the thin ice he perpetually skated on. Oh, their parents had helped Jake out a couple of times—when the stockmarket had supposedly taken a tumble, and when the twins were first born and Beth had been hospitalised with depression—but unbeknown to them she, too, had helped. Emma swallowed down the flutter of unease at the thought of the credit card account she had opened to bail him out, the personal loan she had taken…Each time Jake had promised he’d pay her back; each time he had sworn it would be the last…

…and each time he had lied.

Emma stared out at the grey morning, willing the sun to come up and shed some light on what she should do.

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