At six feet five inches, short women didn’t appeal to Brent Howard in the least, so it was only natural his gaze zeroed in on five feet ten inch Sophie Adams the minute she walked into the crowded room. She was a stunning creature, cultivated and poised; her status of wealth and influence in society evident in not only her regal appearance but in her every move.
He couldn’t help thinking the outdated newspaper clipping he’d seen of her earlier hadn’t done her justice. The colorless picture hadn’t revealed the healthy, rich satin of her honey-toned skin, or the way the auburn highlights in her hair, done in a casual yet elegant style away from her face, caught the light as she moved. Reminding him of an untamed wildfire begging to be tamed.
As she moved, the light captured the brilliance of the emeralds adorning her slender throat. Even Brent’s inexperienced eyes could tell they weren’t made of paste but were the real deal, and probably worth a small fortune. The fifteen-carat diamond on her finger alone could probably buy a small country and would certainly feed a lot of starving people. His mouth turned down with mild disgust. He didn’t begrudge people who had money but flaunting it in pretentious ways had always turned him off. And Miss Adams had a way of flaunting it as though it was as natural to her as air was to breathe.
She turned slightly and Brent caught his breath, his gaze landing on the amount of flesh exposed by the daringly low cut back of her dress, which narrowed to the curve of her slim waist. Not only beautiful but an exhibitionist as well, another strike against her. Furthermore, with everything else he knew about Sophie Adams, a woman like her would never interest him.
Without being obvious, his gaze followed her as he waited for the right time to make his move. As she glided smoothly from one painting to another wearing that “look but don’t touch” attitude, he was surprised to see she was alone. No one approached her, not even to say hello. However, he knew in spite of her social standing within the community, it was a well-known fact that Miss Adams insisted on her space and privacy. In fact, she demanded it. An unapproachable beauty one could only look at and admire from afar.
Brent knew that would be her downfall.
With a roguish grin his mother would say held a look of pure trouble, he reached for a glass of champagne off a tray as the hostess walked by, sipping at it without really tasting it. Pretending interest in some of the artwork and sculptures scattered throughout the spacious room, he continued to watch Sophie as he gradually made his way in her direction. The museum was crowded with black ties, suits and evening gowns as only the wealthiest had turned out for the grand opening of the Calabay Cove Art Museum.
Photographers were many, frenziedly snapping pictures of the rich and famous. He scanned the room, taking note of the security guards stationed about, who were also dressed to the hilt in an effort to blend in and not alarm the public in case they might be needed. Strictly as a precaution, the owners of the museum weren’t taking any chances with the millions of dollars worth of art they had on hand. Brent wondered if it had occurred to anyone that there was more there then just artwork needing protection. His gaze automatically searched out Sophie, and froze.
The lady was looking directly at him.
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 she remembered 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 he tended to look at the smallest infraction as an embarrassment and personal attack on him. Even going so 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 took 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 anyone observing her didn’t notice 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.
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.
Brent was trained to notice things. The tiniest telltale flicker in Sophie’s beautiful eyes when their gazes met gave her true feelings away when her fiancé touched her. The barely noticeable stiffening of her body after Lord removed his lips sent up a warning flag Brent couldn’t ignore. His narrowed, not missing the way her hand trembled slightly as she brought the champagne glass to her rose-colored mouth.
The lady was definitely repulsed by Lord’s touch. Either that or she loathed public displays, which he quickly dismissed. If Lord noticed anything, he ignored it, too arrogant and self-assured. Yet Brent’s instincts told him he knew exactly what Sophie’s reaction was to his touch and that he was taking secret pleasure in it.
Some men got off on forcing their unwanted attentions on a woman when they knew it wasn’t reciprocated. For some reason, those ungrounded thoughts sent a rush of anger through Brent as the conversation he’d had with Senator Adams two days before came back to him. Was he correct in his theory that Sophie was being blackmailed into marriage? Brent knew enough about Jonathan Lord’s reputation to know the man never took no for an answer. When he wanted something, he got it by whatever means available to him. He was shrewd in his business dealings, lucky with his money investments, and thrived on power, most especially the kind he’d acquire once he and Sophie were married.
Add that to the several high-ranking politicians already in his hip pocket and the man was set for life. It was rumored he was good at digging up dirt, the kind people in high places paid a lot of money to keep from becoming public. Of course no one was brave enough to come right out and accuse him of blackmail, which made Lord a dangerous man as far as Brent was concerned. The kind a person would have to be a fool to cross, unless they were an influential senator.
Senator Adams had a bulldog reputation of standing his own ground when he wanted something too. He got results. If he suspected Sophie was being blackmailed into marrying Lord, he would do anything to find out what Lord’s leverage was in order to prevent it, not excluding kidnapping. The million-dollar question was what did Lord have on Sophie that would force her to marry him against her will?
His gaze traveled over her again, more leisurely this time, wondering what secrets the lady was hiding. One thing was certain though, that gown she was wearing wasn’t hiding any of them. As he watched the exchange between her and Lord closely, he reached for another glass of champagne, preferring something stronger like a shot of whiskey. Taking a sip, he narrowed his gaze on the way she rolled her shoulder out from under Lord’s caressing hand, the action causing Brent’s mouth to curve into a knowing smile.