“I appreciate you coming for the occasion to welcome Isabella Caplan to our city,” Theron said in a congenial tone.
A waiter approached and handed Isabella a glass of champagne then turned to offer Theron one. He held it at waist level as he continued to address the crowd.
“We’re here to enjoy an evening of entertainment, dancing and conversation. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want, or until the booze runs out,” he added with a smile.
Laughter rang out.
He turned to Isabella and held out his glass. “A toast to Isabella.”
“To Isabella,” the guests echoed.
Theron touched his glass to hers and their gazes locked. For a long moment they simply stared. And then Theron broke away and took a long swallow.
Though she had no desire to wade through the eligible men assembled at Theron’s request—it reminded her of choosing steaks at a butcher shop—she knew she’d have to play the part, particularly if she had any hope of making Theron jealous. It was a long shot, because he’d have to feel more for her than simple lust, but at the moment, it was her only hope.
The toast seemed to have signaled a return to normal activities. The band struck up a song, and people swirled onto the dance floor.
“Come with me, Bella. It’s time to introduce you around.”
“You mean it’s time for me to meet the men you’ve assembled for me,” she said dryly.
He glanced questioningly at her. “Would you prefer not to meet them? There’s nothing to say you have to.”
He sounded almost hopeful, a little too eager, which was strange considering the time he had to have spent putting together his group of bachelors. The background checks alone would have been an enormous undertaking. And he wouldn’t have left a single stone unturned.
She nearly grinned at the thought.
“No, let’s do it. My future awaits and all that,” she said lightly.
She curled her hand around his arm and allowed him to lead her into the crowd. Unsure of what she could expect, and maybe she’d thought there would be a stampede, she was pleasantly surprised by how civilized the whole process was.
Theron took her around from group to group, introducing her to business acquaintances and friends. It was easy to immerse herself in the fantasy that she and Theron were together, and he was acting as her escort and not a man bent on marrying her off. It was also easy to forget that just a few feet away, Alannis and her mother stood, observing the goings-on.
Still, Isabella wasn’t ready to let reality intrude, and she clung to Theron’s arm all the while offering a smile or a laugh as she engaged in conversation. After awhile she found herself relaxing and genuinely enjoying the festive gathering.
She glanced up as an attractive man made his way in her direction, a determined look on his face. She recognized him as Marcus Atwater, the man who’d introduced himself in the restaurant the day before.
“Isabella, my apologies for my late arrival,” he said as he approached. He flashed her a charming smile that she couldn’t help but respond to. “I was unexpectedly tied up with a client.”
He took her hand, and as he’d done in the restaurant, he lifted it to his lips. Then he cast a questioning look in Theron’s direction—Theron who stood there looking as though a black cloud had parked itself right over his head.
“I’d like to borrow Isabella. I promise to keep her safe, and you can return to your own date, who, if you don’t mind me saying, looks very much like she’d like to dance.”
Theron scowled, and Isabella glanced over to see Alannis eyeing the dancing couples with what could only be construed as a wistful glance. Isabella didn’t want to feel pity. She wanted to dislike Alannis. If she was a complete ogre it would be so much simpler, but the fact was that both mother and daughter had been extremely nice to her.
“Are you borrowing me for a dance or for some other purpose?” she asked teasingly as she slipped her hand into Marcus’s.
“How about we dance first and we can discuss other purposes later,” he said with a teasing glint in his eye.
Theron’s expression was glacial. She released his arm to go with Marcus, but he caught her free hand, pulling her between the two men.
She stared at him for a moment, waiting for him to speak, but he seemed to be at a loss for words, or maybe he hadn’t intended to pull her back.
“Was there something you wanted?” she asked.
He released her hand and shook his head even as he glanced in Alannis’s direction. “No. Have fun, pethi mou. This is your night.”
With one last look in his direction, she turned and let Marcus lead her back to the dance floor. He spun her in an expert move, and she landed against his chest. Laughing blue eyes shone down at her, and she smiled in return.
“Are you still husband hunting or have I arrived too late for consideration?” he asked with mock seriousness.
“Aren’t men supposed to run in the other direction when marriage is mentioned?”
“Not if he doesn’t mind being caught by the woman in question.”
“You’re a total flirt,” she said with a laugh. “I can’t possibly take such a charming man seriously.”
He grinned but didn’t refute her claim. They danced among the crowd of couples, and every chance she got, she snuck a peek Theron’s way.
He and Alannis were dancing on the far side. She stared laughing up into his eyes, and it didn’t take a genius to see how starstruck she was by Theron. Isabella knew that feeling well
“So,” Marcus said casually as he spun her around. “Are you going to let him get away?”
She yanked her gaze guiltily away from Theron to meet Marcus’s amused smile. When she realized she hadn’t a hope of playing ignorant, she sighed.
“Am I that obvious?” she asked in resignation.
“Only to another man who’s scouting the territory for competition.”
Her shoulders slumped downward. “I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to this farce. This was Theron’s idea in case you haven’t guessed. He’s decided that it’s his duty to marry me off with all possible haste.”
Marcus touched her chin and gently tugged upward until she looked him in the eye. “Have you told him how you feel?”
She glanced back over at Theron then shook her head. “It’s complicated.”
“Tell you what. Why don’t we head to that corner over there. I’ll get us a drink and you can tell me all about it.”
Theron’s gaze found Isabella again as he listened politely to Alannis and Sophia and the small group of people who stood in the loosely formed circle to the side of the dance floor. He ground his teeth together as Marcus leaned in close to Isabella, his lips hovering precariously close to her ear as he murmured to her.
She laughed and the seductive sound rose over the clink of glasses and the murmur of conversation. Marcus’s fingers drifted over her bare shoulder, lingering there much longer than Theron thought appropriate.
He had to swallow the sound of anger that bubbled up in his throat when Marcus trailed one finger down her cheek and then seductively down the side of her neck and around to the hollow of her throat.
Isabella leaned toward Marcus as if seeking his touch, and then he angled in and pressed his lips very softly to the expanse of skin just below her ear.
“Theos mou,” Theron growled. “Enough is enough.”
“Theron, is something wrong?” Alannis asked.
She touched his arm and he turned to see concern reflected in her eyes.
“It’s nothing,” he said shortly.
Alannis glanced at Isabella and then back to him. “She seems to be having a good time.”
“Yes.” His gaze drifted back, his annoyance growing as Marcus grew bolder in his advances. “Excuse me a moment, will you, Alannis?”
He nodded to Sophia and walked as calmly as he was able over to where Marcus was standing with Isabella. He all but had her trapped in the corner, his body moving in like a predator closing in on a kill.
Just as Theron started to speak up, Marcus lowered his head to nuzzle Isabella’s neck. Rage exploded over Theron. He closed the remaining distance and grabbed the other man by the shoulder, tearing him away from Isabella.
“What the…” Marcus began but broke off mid sentence. “Theron, is there a problem?”
“Come here, Isabella,” Theron bit out. He held his hand out as Isabella stared at him agape.
“What on earth is wrong?” she asked even as she slid her hand into his.
He pulled until she was against his side then he focused the full force of his glare at Marcus.
“Keep your hands off her,” he snarled. “You aren’t to touch her. You aren’t to so much as think about her. Understand?”
Marcus surprised him by grinning and then backing away, hands up. “Whatever you say.” Then he winked at Isabella. “I guess I’ll go. Something tells me I’ve overstayed my welcome.”
“Oh, no, Marcus, stay.” She glanced back up at Theron with a puzzled expression. “I’m sure Theron has no objections.”
“I have plenty of objections. He was mauling you in plain view of a roomful of people.” Then he turned again to Marcus, as he pulled Isabella even closer. He dropped his voice low enough not to be overheard. “If I find you near her again, I’ll take you apart. Are we clear?”