"Our wedding dress tonight is by Yves Saint Laurent. It was worn by socialite Ella Fitzherbert in 1971, on her marriage to the society photographer, David Grundy." The female announcer had a pleasant musical tone to her voice. Charlie liked musical voices. He tried looking through the visions who'd walked down the runway and posed at the end, but it was no good. All the clothes in this fashion show seemed to illustrate his favorite fetish, and under the linen tablecloth he was sporting a hard-on the size of the Eiffel Tower.
He dared to look at the wedding gown. Ah, better. The dress was hippie-like, rather than constructed with architectural precision like the previous outfits. It floated around the pretty model as she walked down the runway and then back, and it had little flowers embroidered on its gauze overskirt. Not that he cared, just that concentrating on this look helped to calm him down and get his cock back to acceptably social proportions.
The lights went up, and he blinked, coming back to reality. He'd bathed in the voice and the models in vintage fashions striding arrogantly down the runway, feeding his fantasies for the foreseeable future.
"Will you look at that?"
Charlie shot his ex-girlfriend an irritated glance. "You've found something interesting at last, Tanya?" She'd spent the whole show snarking and laughing with her friends. He had no idea why Tanya insisted he take her, especially since he'd finished their affair last week. But Tanya was a celebrity-hound and on the hunt for a new escort; she'd probably spotted someone in the guest list.
Out of sight of Tanya, Jim Goddard, the only other male at the table tonight, grimaced, and Charlie was hard put not to laugh. Jim's innocent and sheltered youthful appearance actually covered a wicked mind and a man of thirty. His genius for building computers that people actually wanted had gone a long way in shooting the company they both worked for into the stratosphere.
Tanya leaned toward Charlie, and he caught his breath on the gust of cloying perfume. Although she'd moved close, she didn't moderate her cut-glass tones. "That dress... Do you see the woman on the stage?"
Charlie obediently looked. And nearly swallowed his tongue. Holding the microphone, watching the model in the bridal outfit float back up the runway, stood the owner of the musical voice.
She wore a wine-red dress he found vaguely familiar, but filled it in a way uniquely her own. Her smooth, creamy shoulders rose from the wide neckline, the satin collar adorned with a gold brooch. Her hair was done up in a smooth knot. He liked the way she'd swept it off her neck. Made it more inviting, more--kissable. He loved a woman's neck, and he could almost taste this one, the skin inviting him to touch and taste. Her breasts swelled above the broad collar, pushed up by whatever she was wearing beneath, and the dress skimmed over her body, ending just above the knees. A vertical ridge under the fabric, stretching from below her breasts to her hips hinted at delights beneath, and his fingers itched to discover them. The delectable curve of her waist nearly undid all the good the bride's gown had achieved.
He looked away, but not in time. A pair of startled brown eyes met his for a bare second, and they communicated an acknowledgment of a beginning, one that might never happen. He wanted to touch. Badly. So much that he could almost feel her silken skin under his fingers.
A man could dream. Or rather, fantasize.
"I see her," he said to Tanya as calmly as he could manage.
"I gave that red dress away last month. It was hopeless. I could never get it to sit right on my shoulders. How nice to know it found another home." Tanya's high-pitched laugh irritated him, but not as much as her words. When Tanya had rung him a couple of days before, reminding him about this charity fashion show, he'd cursed, then agreed. Surely they'd be safe enough at a circular table for six. He'd brought Jim along as insurance, as someone who knew Tanya and considered himself immune to her. Tanya had arrived with three of her best friends and proceeded to giggle her way through the fashion show.
Charlie wondered what he'd ever seen in her, but he'd never been an unjust man and after a moment's consideration he knew. Tanya was bright, funny, and possessed sexual stamina belied by her ultrathin figure. But recently her histrionics and increasingly frantic social life had palled on him. He'd already told her that his latest gift, the sapphire necklace she was currently flaunting, would form her farewell gift. She'd understood; it wasn't as if he was the only man she dated.
The woman on the stage shot a startled glance in their direction, and Charlie's heart sank. She'd heard Tanya. Glancing at her notes, the woman breathed deeply, her breasts swelling beautifully, and then launched into her windup speech. "Thank you all for coming tonight and for supporting us so generously. We're hoping that the new flagship designer shop will be the start of something big for our cause." It took him a moment to recall the name of the charity, and he'd only known it because someone had left a menu on the table. Regret flooded him when he realized he hadn't even asked more about the charity. He preferred to support charities he knew more about, and he'd make a point of finding out.
Not for the first time he wondered why charities bothered arranging expensive affairs in top London hotels instead of just giving the money away. And answered himself almost immediately. They gave people like him a chance to talk business on neutral ground. Without functions like this, the social network, as delicate as anything run by his illustrious ancestors, would come to a screeching halt. In any case, people like Tanya and her friends wouldn't have much left to do before the nightclubs opened.
He took another look at the menu. Families of Children with Special Needs, it said. The woman on stage was elaborating on the introduction she'd made before the show, and was now extolling the charity's virtues and how tonight's function would help. Charlie tried to listen over the chatter of Tanya and her friends. He agreed with the premise, that the families of children with severe learning difficulties did need extra help and rarely got the support they required. That made him feel somewhat better, to know he was supporting a worthwhile cause.
Tanya ignored her, only lowering her voice a trifle. Normally she had better manners, but she'd been drinking steadily all evening, and God knew what she'd taken before Charlie had picked her up to come here. "The dress was huge. It absolutely hung on me, darling. I'm sure that's the one because she's pinned a brooch on the place where I spilled champagne. I'd bet my new jewelry that brooch isn't real either." Toying with her necklace, she shrugged her elegant, bony shoulders. Her acolytes, women Charlie had to work to remember the names of, tittered.
The woman stopped speaking, and everyone applauded, even Tanya. The speaker had spoken steadily throughout Tanya's insults. Charlie didn't know what was worse--the fact that Tanya was so rude tonight or that he hadn't noticed her state when he'd picked her up. He could have taken her for dinner somewhere and dropped her back at home. It wouldn't have been the first time.
"I think she looks very attractive," Jim said but in a much lower tone than the one Tanya had used. The woman left the stage after telling everyone to enjoy their evening and crossed the dance floor toward her table. She walked in front of the VIP table Charlie and his party occupied, so he saw the way she set her jaw and studiously ignored them. She'd heard all right. Shame swept over him in a tidal wave. Tanya had no excuse for her behavior. However drunk or stoned she was, she should recall where she was, and if she couldn't keep her voice down, then at least keep her comments to herself. Still, after tonight, she was no longer his concern.
Tanya watched the woman take her seat at the table next to theirs. "Do you think they all dressed from the charity shop?" She picked up her glass and took a sip before grimacing and replacing it on the table. "They could have used some of the money to get decent wine."
Charlie leaned back, wanting no part of the conversation. At least Tanya's behavior had achieved what the model in the bridal gown hadn't, and he was definitely back to flaccid acceptability.
The waiters had just cleared the tables, and the dancing would begin soon. After he apologized to the woman at the next table, he would get Tanya on the dance floor and dance her off the other side, the side nearest the exit. Take her home and post her through her front door.
The more Tanya drank, the louder and crueler her comments grew. One of Tanya's friends glanced at Charlie, who wasn't hiding his displeasure, and then hastily back at Tanya. "What a lovely necklace," she said.
Great distraction. Charlie owed her for that.
The sapphires glittered in the light from the chandeliers above them. "It was a gift." Tanya shot a sideways look at Charlie and bestowed a sweet smile and a wink on him. "From my dearest friend."
Charlie suppressed a sigh. By the way she drawled "Dearest," he knew Tanya was expecting more from him, even though he'd made it clear she shouldn't. Too arrogant, too sure of herself, characteristics he'd liked about her in the past, could now threaten his peace of mind. Charlie could hardly believe he'd considered proposing marriage. Only his mother's constant nagging had persuaded him to even think about it. Tanya came from the right kind of family, she didn't need his money, and she could hostess events as well as his mother when she made the effort. Overdoing the drugs might be a result of his finishing with her, although she'd seemed fine with it at the time. Plus, she wasn't boring in bed.
Tanya would never see a ring from him now. After tonight she was history. He usually remained on cordial terms with his exes, but not this one.
ZARA'S ASSISTANT, COURTNEY, winked at her. "That woman doesn't seem to think much of us."
Zara shrugged although she was still fighting back tears from the hurtful remarks that could destroy the evening she'd planned so carefully. "By the expression on her boyfriend's face, he doesn't seem to think much of what she said either."
"You know who he is, don't you?"
Zara risked a glance at the gorgeous man at the next table. Hot blood rose to her cheeks when she met his arrogant examination, as if she were no more than an interesting curiosity. That dazzling stare bored into her as if he could see her inmost secrets. He didn't look away when their gazes locked, so neither did she. She confronted him with a defiant stare. Why should he bother her?
He smiled, and his face changed from arrogant to wicked. Far too devastating. Something inside her stirred and came to life. Something totally inappropriate, she thought as heat flooded her sex and dampened her knickers.
She blinked and swallowed, forcing her attention away from him and back to Courtney. "Yes, of course I know him. Haven't you read the papers?" Charles 'Charlie' Beauchamp, the Earl of Woodhouse. Rich and titled and too arrogant for his own good. Sexy too, but she hadn't known that until she'd met his gaze full-on earlier and nearly lost the thread of the speech she'd spent the last week memorizing and practicing. "That woman with him is Tanya Yates-Whittaker," Courtney said.
Zara grinned at her friend, relieved to have the conversation move away from the man who made her squirm. "I know who she is, you dork. She's always in the media. Usually dressed like a demented puppet." Until a moment ago, she had no idea she was wearing one of Tanya Yates-Whittaker's cast-offs. The charity got a lot of good stuff from the posh houses in the West End and Belgravia. That was what had given her the idea for the shop.
Spending too much time on the Internet and skimming through gossip columns was part of her job, to attract high-profile people to donate to the charity. One she was good at.
According to the tabloids, Tanya Yates-Whittaker would be the next Countess of Woodhouse. Served him right. He deserved a wife like that. Thoughtless, spoiled, skinny, and selfish. But rich; she shouldn't forget that. Maybe even a future donor to the charity.
She reminded herself that she disliked men like his lordship, men who thought they owned the world. He probably did. And he was so much more...more in person. Zara smoothed a hand over the velvet skirt of her dress. Still convinced it was too tight, she'd nonetheless appropriated it from the charity shop to wear tonight. It would go back in the morning even though the wine-red color suited her. Telling herself that she didn't care that Tanya had commented very loudly on the dress didn't help. At the time, she'd wanted to burst into tears, so frustrated that with a few careless words Tanya could have wrecked what Zara had worked so hard for months to achieve. Her ignorant comments denigrated everything that Zara was working for; the idea that vintage didn't mean used, sordid, inferior. Tanya had the ears and eyes of the media. She worked hard for it. If she decided to continue her spiteful campaign, she could put a serious block on the clients Zara wanted to attract.
She wouldn't cry; that was stupid. Bad form and definitely bad for her professional standing. She reached for her wineglass, deliberately taking her attention away from the other table. A gulp of the awful white would help her to swallow her humiliation.
"Excuse me." The velvety male voice came unexpectedly from behind her.
The white wine spilled over her glass and onto her dress. That would add another stain to the one on the wide satin collar that she'd only noticed tonight and hastily covered with her mother's brooch. She batted at the new mark and grabbed for a napkin. Someone pushed one into her hand.
She looked up. And up. Into the depths of dark blue eyes set over a patrician nose and a sensual, finely cut mouth, which at the moment was smiling. At her.
The waves of embarrassed heat turned to heat of a different kind, and she looked away, unable to take that kind of intensity. Her fingers, suddenly numb, released the napkin. She didn't see where it went.
If she'd thought Lord Woodhouse impressive at a distance, close up he was devastating. All thoughts of tapping him for more money for the charity vanished, replaced by visions of what he'd look like naked. Hot.
Horrified at her gauche behavior, Zara could only think of one word. "Fuck."