Theron rose from where he was sitting on the couch, his eyes sparking. He motioned to the other three men. “Leave us,” he said shortly.

Isabella let the bags slide from her fingertips as the three men filed by. Reynolds shot her a disapproving look, and she smiled tentatively.

When they were gone, she glanced over at Theron who had closed the distance between them. He glowered menacingly, his face a veritable storm cloud.

“You didn’t fire them, did you?” she asked uneasily.

“Rest assured I know exactly where the blame lies,” he gritted out.

She bent down to collect her bags and walked around him toward the couch.

“Taking off from your security team was a foolish thing to do, Bella. Did I not impress upon you the need for them? What were you thinking?”

She turned and regarded him thoughtfully. “I had my reasons,” she said simply.

He threw up his hands in exasperation. “What reasons?” he demanded.

She smiled. “Nothing you would approve of. I didn’t stay long, and I took precautions. The very nice cabdriver looked out for me quite well, and the saleslady never left my side. Well, except when she went to get me shoes.”

Theron’s face went gray. “Cabdriver? You entrusted your well-being to a cabdriver?”

“Relax,” she said with a grin. “He was a perfect gentleman. He drove me to the department store and waited for me until I was through.”

Theron swallowed and looked as though he was fighting to keep his temper in check. Hmm. Theron losing his cool. That might be worth the price of admission.

“Why did you leave without your security team? What was so important that you would risk yourself in this manner?”

She held up her shopping bag. “I needed a dress for the party tonight.”

He drew in a deep breath, closed his eyes and then reopened them. He strode over to where she stood and gripped her shoulders. “A dress? You gave me the fright of my life for a dress?”

He shook her as he spoke and she gripped his waist to keep her balance.

“It wasn’t just any dress,” she murmured as she tried to keep the smile from her face. She probably shouldn’t bait him as she was, but making him lose his composure had suddenly become her mission. “I could hardly meet my future husband in anything but a truly spectacular dress.”

“You are the most infuriating, frustrating woman I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet,” he growled.

And then he crushed her to him, slanting his lips over hers in a forceful kiss that took her breath away. She moaned as his hands gripped her arms then slid over her back like bands of steel.

He tasted her hungrily, like a man starving, as though he couldn’t get enough. Tingling awareness snaked up her spine. Her breasts throbbed, and her nipples became taut points, pushing at his chest.

The sounds of their kiss, hot and breathless filled the room. One of his hands slipped to the waist of her jeans, and he yanked at her shirt until it came free. Then he slid his fingers over the bare skin of her lower back, right where her tattoo rested. He traced patterns over the small of her back as though he was aware of what was there.

Eager to taste him, she traced his lip with her tongue until he reached out to duel delicately with his own. Warm. So masculine, he tasted of strength, of heady power.

She lost herself in his arms, melted against his mouth. Her pulse sped up and bounced erratically. How she craved him.

His hand crept higher until it collided with her bra strap. He fumbled over the clasp and then he froze.

With a muffled curse, he broke away, his breaths coming hard and ragged. His eyes blazed like an out-of-control fire, and then he dropped his hands from her body like she’d burned him.

He swore again, a mixture of Greek and English and then ran a hand through his hair.

“Theos mou! We can’t…not again. This mustn’t happen again. I’m sorry, Bella.”

He held up his hands and then backed away. He paused at the door, his motions haphazard, like he was drunk. Then he turned to stare at her, his eyes still burning with unresolved desire.

“Your security team goes everywhere with you. Are we understood? From now on, they even go to the bathroom with you.”

She nodded, unable to do anything more. She was shaking too badly. As he left her hotel room, she gripped her arms and rubbed up and down to make the chill bumps go away.

“You can deny it all you want,” she whispered to the empty room. “You want me every bit as much as I want you.”

Nine

T heron rubbed the back of his neck in an effort to relieve the enormous tension that gripped him. Isabella still hadn’t arrived, and he felt equal parts relief and disappointment.

He glanced around the ballroom of the Imperial Park Hotel, taking in the guests milling around, talking and laughing as a jazz band played softly from an elevated platform.

Alannis stood at his side, her hand resting on his arm. Sophia stood on Alannis’s other side, her pride in her daughter evident.

He ducked his head to hear what Alannis was trying to tell him and nodded appropriately though his concentration was shot. When he stood to his full height again, his gaze went to the doorway, and his breath caught in his throat.

She was here.

Isabella stood as she gazed nervously over the room. Theron swallowed when he took in her attire. The term little black dress could have been coined for this occasion.

The material molded to her every curve and settled a few inches above her knees. She wore her hair up, drawing attention to the shape of her neck. Stray tendrils escaped the elegant knot and whispered against her skin.

His fingers itched to let her hair down and watch it fall to her shoulders. He wanted to run his hands through the silken mass, feel it twine around his knuckles.

“Oh, look, there’s Isabella,” Sophia exclaimed.

As if he wouldn’t be aware the moment she stepped into the room.

“Excuse me,” he murmured to Alannis.

She let him go with a smile, and he made his way to where Isabella stood.

There wasn’t an easy way to address the awareness between them, so he chose to ignore it—and the fact that he’d kissed her just hours before.

“Bella,” he greeted as he stopped in front of her.

She gazed up at him with wide green eyes, her mouth curving into a smile of welcome.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said in a breathy voice. “I don’t suppose you saved me a dance?”

He nearly groaned. The thought of having her pressed that close to his body was torture.

“The dancing hasn’t begun yet,” he said as he turned to look at the band. “Perhaps we can kick it off together, and then I’ll introduce you around.”

He motioned to the pianist who nodded in return. A slow, sultry melody started, and Theron offered his hand to Isabella. Her fingers trembled slightly in his grip, and he squeezed to reassure her.

When they reached the middle of the area that was the designated dance floor, he turned, and she went willingly into his arms. The moment she melted against him, he went completely rigid.

Her scent surrounded him as the warmth from her touch invaded his body. There wasn’t a single inch that wasn’t aware of her feminine form. He glanced down as they made a slow turn and swallowed hard. She wasn’t wearing a bra and the lush mounds were pressed tightly against his chest, thrusting upward, straining against the neckline of her dress.

It was all he could do not to haul her out of the room so that no one else could see her.

He blew out his breath as inconspicuously as possible and reminded himself that she wasn’t his, and he had no right to be possessive.

It still didn’t help the rise of irritation when he saw how many men were staring avidly at Isabella. No, she wouldn’t have any shortage of suitors after tonight. He should have been relieved, but he was anything but.

It was all he could do to keep the scowl from his f

ace.

“The party is lovely,” Isabella said with a smile as she gazed over his shoulder. “Thank you for putting it on.”

“You’re quite welcome, pethi mou. I want you to enjoy yourself.”

“How are your guests settling in?” she asked innocently.

His eyes narrowed. Did she know of his plans for Alannis? It wasn’t as if she wouldn’t know in a short time, but for some reason he was reluctant to tell her of his impending engagement. Or maybe he was a first-class slimeball who’d kissed another woman within days of asking another woman to marry him.

“They’re settling in quite well,” he muttered as he swung her around so that she wasn’t facing Alannis and her mother.

Guilt filled him. What kind of a man took advantage of a young woman when he had an agreement with another? Even Piers, who was never without a woman, would frown on seducing his ward when he had a soon-to-be fiancée waiting in the wings.

Chrysander wouldn’t hesitate to kick his ass all the way back to Greece for pulling this kind of stunt with Isabella.

“So which ones are my potential husbands?” she asked as she craned to see around him.

She wore a mischievous smile that only made her sparkle all the brighter.

“I’ll introduce you as soon as our dance is over,” he said.

For this moment, she was his, in his arms, and he wasn’t in any hurry to relinquish her to her waiting suitors. They’d gathered around the perimeter of the dance area like a bunch of vultures.

For the first time, he regretted his hasty decision to assist Isabella in her search for a husband. She was too young to think of marriage. She should be out having fun, not thinking of making a lifelong commitment.

And yet he was poised to do just that. Panic scuttled up his spine. Then he firmly tamped it down. Before Isabella came bursting into his life, he was more than content over the idea of marrying Alannis and settling down to have children. Isabella was a temporary distraction, nothing more. As soon as things were settled between him and Alannis, and he had Isabella on her path to security and stability, he was confident that he’d embrace his future without hesitation.

When the song died, Theron dropped his hands and then enfolded Isabella’s in his. “Come, pethi mou. Your party awaits.”

Isabella donned her best smile and allowed Theron to lead her through the assembled guests to where the band was set up. Theron held a hand out, and the music stopped. Then he turned to face the guests.

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