Through the throng of bejeweled partiers, the nasal assault of perfume and deodorants, he spotted Patrice Lampton in the corner. A sprite on a ladder-back chair throne, surrounded by her court of jesters vying for the attention being with her could bring. She sat, with her long elegant legs crossed at the knees. The electric smile on her makeup-glazed face could have powered a small town. Desire coursed through him. But for what?
Certainly not for the recognition of having been one of the many to bed her, the challenge eroded by the endless mattress party her life had become.
He visualized her body barely hidden beneath a curve-clinging red silk dress, remembered the silken touch of her pixie cut auburn hair tangled in his fingers. The musky scent of her slick, wet pussy lingered in the recesses of his mind. The taste of her hungry mouth filled his dreams.
Without warning, her hazel-eyes lowered to an unseen place, far beyond the facade of laughter and sweet aroma of champagne aimlessly fluttering in the ballroom's thick air. She slipped a portion of her silver linked necklace to her mouth and strung it over her teeth. It was an unconscious act from another time, a place devoid of the new world around her. In that moment, he understood. His physical desire was not for the woman the public followed in the tabloids. He craved the private person, the one she once shared with him.
To regain this secret part of her would be his prize, the pinnacle no one else had scaled. When he had stolen all her deepest secrets, what little passion for life she retained, he would laugh and walk away, his need for revenge satiated.
He smoothed the jacket of his white tux and straightened the black bowtie. With a toss of his head, he gathered the arrogance he'd practiced hours on end in front of a mirror, and finally strode to her table. Her devotees moved around her with the activity of ants servicing their queen in the hope of devouring the leftover crumbs of decadence.
Patrice slowly glanced up at him, the necklace tumbling back to its rightful spot on her pale, powdered skin. No sheen painted her eyes, only the question of who this uninvited intruder might be. No doubt, his rented tux, lacking the perfect tailoring worn by her male entourage, would instantly register with her. He didn't belong in this sphere of wealth and self-indulgence on this chartered cruise ship.
A smile wouldn't be sufficient to stimulate her interest. The men around her fawned mouths set with fixed expressions of devotion. So he forced his face to remain stoic, bored even, as if she were the last person he would consider taking between the sheets. His heart rate kicked up a notch. He inclined his head.
"Miss Lampton, I wanted to offer this small contribution to your fundraiser. I find your efforts to stem domestic abuse most laudable." He handed her the check, hoping his words had come out as smooth and unemotional as he'd practiced.
Without looking at the paper, she passed it to the guy standing on her left, a store mannequin of a man dressed in an immaculate black tuxedo, white shirt and rainbow tie. She raised a pencil-enhanced brow. "To whom do I express my appreciation?"
"Lancer Thompkins," He nodded curtly and turned to leave. His nerves twisted. His gut wrenched. He'd done it!
Her curiosity would drive her insane. She would have to discover more about him. He'd studied her new persona for months and recognized her quirks, including the arched brow that had betrayed her. She'd taken the bait. He had planted the first seed.
He squared his shoulders and marched victoriously to the exit and the salty sea air.
The ship docked in Rio in a day's time. He had until then to manipulate his way into her head. He wanted to dominate her thoughts and invade her dreams.
An older couple strolled past, arms crossed over each other's backs, the woman's cheek resting against her companion's shoulder.
Guilt swept over him. His gut twisted. A new ... regret ... pulsed in his neck.
"That should have been us," he whispered to no one.
And for the first time in his miserable life, he wondered if he could actually go through with his plan.
"I don't recall a Lancer Thompkins among the reservations," Harrison growled.
"He isn't a guest," Patrice heaved out in a sigh. "Check the crew list for Brian..." sadness welled in her chest "...Brian Bowers."
"He's a fraud?"
Her focus remained on the door Bowers had exited. "No. He's a misguided avenger on a quest."
"I don't follow you."
"Don't worry about him." Patrice eased back in her chair. She sighed and folded her hands in her lap.
Brian had filled out over the years. She wet her bottom lip at the image of all that hard muscle rippling under his hired tux. Why on earth had he dyed his brown hair jet black? She tapped her fingernails on the arm of the chair in agitation. The infuriating man had added blue contacts to disguise his brown eyes as well. Did he honestly believe she wouldn't recall a childhood sweetheart? Damn him! He was the one man she could never forget. Not that she had the courage to admit it to him or anyone else. Now, for all the wrong reasons, he'd reentered her life. "I'll have the captain fire him once we reach Rio."
"What about this check? It's for ten thousand."
Patrice sucked in her cheeks a moment to think about that. No way could he actually have that kind of money in the bank. Taking a sip of champagne, she swirled the expensive bubbles over her tongue before swallowing. Arousal had slammed into her, soaking her panties, the second she saw him approaching her table. The empty spot in her heart throbbed. Why now? He could have contacted her whenever he wanted--she'd prayed for that to happen so many times those first few years. She snorted. He'd made his choice, and sure as hell, she wasn't it. She shook her head in dismay. After all this time, he'd decided to reappear and done so with a lie.
She gulped down the golden liquid in her glass to fill the void she'd foolishly kept for him. If he truly believed he could hurt her again, he had a lesson to learn.
"Cash it before he has a chance to stop payment." She returned the stemware to the table. If Brian Bowers wanted to play games, he needed to step up his act.
A flutter coursed through her heart at the memories of their time together--young and innocent, locked in the purest of love. The deep affection they had once shared no longer existed in her world of fame and fortune. A new idea bloomed within a flicker of hope. She had to discover if the dream she'd clung to could become reality. Seducing Bowers would require her doing what she did best. Being the public bitch--she'd turned it into an art form.
"Wait. Hang onto the check. I've been bored to tears so far." She curled her lips, her gaze still on the doorway. Her heart pounded at the prospect of seeing him again. "Maybe BB can provide me a little entertainment. Let's see what he's willing to do to win this game."
The one where he balances the scales for his father's suicide after my father set him up to take the fall.
"Find the captain. Have him fire Bowers now and move him to your stateroom for the night."
"My room?" Harrison sputtered. "Where am I supposed to sleep?"
She sniggered and rested her jaw on her shoulder. "I've seen how you flex your ass every time you're around that luscious man, Hahmed Fahkeem. Surely you can find a way into his bed for the night, darling."
In the closet-sized cabin he shared with another crewmember, Bowers stuffed his scant belongings into a duffle bag. He figured it wouldn't be long before he got word he'd been fired. Patrice wouldn't tolerate his remaining in the crew quarters for the rest of the trip to Rio either. Oh no, not her. She'd want him on an acceptable level, one more fitting to her leisure comfort zone from which to crush him. Her predictability roused a chuckle in his throat.
His disguise had allowed just enough deception for Patrice to believe she'd seen through him and had the upper hand.
That had always been the Lampton family weakness--they all thought they were smarter than everybody else.
The last thing to go into the bag was the photograph. He hesitated, opting to take another glance at the pair of them, so young, so unaware of the paths their lives would take. He carefully wedged the framed picture between a T-shirt's folds.
Closing his eyes, he sucked in a breath.
In order for his plan to work, all he had to do was avoid falling in love with her all over again.