An uneasy feeling enveloped Sophie as she unhurriedly made her way around the room, not for the first time peering over her shoulder as though expecting to see someone there. Not paranoid by nature, she was certain someone was following her, and watching her. It wouldn’t be the first time in her twenty-eight years. As the daughter of a senator, she’d grown up in the spotlight, accustomed to being followed by reporters, and at times, bodyguards. However, it had grown worse since her engagement to millionaire Jonathan Lord had been made public. An engagement she would have kept private had it not been for his colossal ego.
Pausing, she examined an oil painting that made her immediately think of confetti. Splashes of bright color that, to her way of thinking, any child of five could have done without much effort. The outrageous price tag of four thousand dollars on it caused her to shake her head with disbelief, until remembering where she was. And who might be watching.
There were photographers about. If one of them managed to snap a picture of her at the wrong moment, that definitely would not be the kind of reaction Jonathan would expect to see on the front page in the morning paper. Furthermore, when he was displeased about something, he let it be known. Keeping up appearances was very important to him, ranking right up there with landing a wealthy senator’s daughter.
Sophie had learned early on that he tended to look at the smallest infraction as an embarrassment and personal attack on him. Even going as far as accusing her of going out of her way to embarrass him in public once, when all she’d done was show up after their engagement announcement not wearing the much-publicized ring. Without being obvious, she cast a glance down at the cold, meaningless stone, hating what it represented. A smile designed to hide her true feelings turned the corners of her mouth up but did nothing to diminish the sadness in her heart when she thought about her situation.
Forcing herself to move on, she ignored the prickling sensation at the back of her neck, resisting the impulse to look behind her a second time. Her imagination was working overtime, that was all. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, reaching for a glass of sparkling champagne. She didn’t drink but maybe a small sip would soothe her nerves. Glancing up as she put her lips to the rim of the glass, she noticed him.
She froze, the man’s dark, compelling presence all but taking her breath away. More handsome than any man had a right to be, he stood well above any other in the room. He didn’t look like the black suit and tie type, yet it fit his broad-shouldered frame nicely, as though tailored specifically for him. He carried himself with ease, revealing a boredom she was used to seeing on the men who moved in her circle. Yet she sensed hiding beneath the surface was an alert predator, primed for action. There was a healthy outdoorsy look about him. His dark skin tone indicated whatever he did for a living wasn’t behind a door in an air-conditioned building somewhere, sitting at a desk.
He gave her the distinct impression he didn’t particularly want to be there. She took another sip of her drink, striving not to be obvious as she kept her gaze trained on him, taking in his jet-black hair. It looked as if he’d been running his hands through it all evening. Feminine interest had her wondering if it was as thick and silky as it appeared. She wondered if he was alone. A quick glance around the room revealed no one else who came close to measuring up to the raw magnetism he portrayed.
A male in his prime.
He brought his glass to his lips, glancing about the room over the rim until his gaze came back to her. Their eyes met and held, causing Sophie to catch her breath again. Her heart skipped a beat. A delicious heat uncurled deep inside her body making her pulse leap excitedly; a sensation she hadn’t experienced in a long time. And never with Jonathan.
Thank goodness she was skilled in the art of keeping her composure even under the most difficult of circumstances, praying no one observing her noticed the faint outward changes she couldn’t control. She didn’t need to glance into a mirror to know the heat filling her cheeks left them a rosy hue, branding her. Perhaps she could blame it on the champagne.
“ Darling, you’re drinking.” Cool, masculine lips briefly touched the exposed skin at Sophie’s collarbone. A shiver escaped her before she could stop it. She hoped Jonathan thought it was a quiver of desire and not the revulsion she actually felt whenever he touched her.
It wasn’t as though he were unattractive. On the contrary, Jonathan was extremely good-looking. A real life Ken doll with stylish blonde hair and sharp blue eyes. Yet it was the monster behind those boyish good looks and southern charm that scared her. From the beginning, she’d heard rumors about how he’d attained his wealth. Stories laced with unfavorable content, and now she had firsthand knowledge of how devious he could be when he wanted something.
“ You look ravishing tonight,” he drawled close to her ear, purposely letting his lips brush against her again. To make matters worse, his hands smoothed up her bare arms to her shoulders, caressing her openly as he went.
Sophie realized she’d have to get over her aversion to Jonathan soon enough. Once they were married, she’d hardly be able to keep him from her bed. As he seemed determined to stake his claim in an unusual public display of affection, she lowered her eyelids, effectively hiding her dislike from the others in the room.
“ Darling? Is something wrong?”
Sophie knew he was waiting for a response, but when she raised her head, it was the dark compelling stare of a stranger who captured and held her gaze.