The Man She Shouldn't Crave
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Then he saw her.
She gazed unblinkingly back at him, and if the eyes were the window to the soul these eyes had the curtains open, the bed unmade and a woman lying naked, all hot and flushed and bothered. And waiting.
Oh, yeah, this was enough to take his mind off the team.
Big blue eyes, round cheeks dusted with rosy colour and a ruby curve of a mouth that made her look on the verge of a smile. He found his own mouth reluctantly returning that smile. She had a subtle fullness to her face that made him unaccountably think of Renaissance Madonnas.
She was a stunningly beautiful girl. In any era.
For a moment he allowed himself the fantasy of having her brought up to his suite. He’d have her run that accent over him on her knees, bury his hands in that thick dark hair. He’d …
… lost his goddamned mind.
About the Author
LUCY ELLIS has four loves in life: books, expensive lingerie, vintage films and big, gorgeous men who have to duck going through doorways. Weaving aspects of them into her fiction is the best part of being a romance writer. Lucy lives in a small cottage in the foothills outside Melbourne.
Recent titles by the same author:
UNTOUCHED BY HIS DIAMONDS
INNOCENT IN THE IVORY TOWER
Did you know these are also available as eBooks? Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk
The Man She
SHE’D come all the way to Toronto to find herself a man. Just not this man.
Shoot! She hoped it wasn’t this man.
Yet, unable to help herself, Rose drank him in—along with every other woman in the room.
Broad, high cheekbones, long straight nose, wide sullen mouth and deepset eyes the colour of a night sky. His bored expression only highlighted the male beauty of his face. Undeniably the gene pool had blessed him. He stood far over six feet, his lean, muscular body clad in expensive dark threads that remained faithful to the strength of him and drew Rose’s attention to how essentially different the male body was from the female.
As if she’d needed reminding, but this man just seemed to be in your face about it.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t have competition. A huddle of gorgeous young men, shifting in their suits, jostled either side of him. They were talking amongst themselves, one of them smirking at the cameras, another looking a little shy.
Rose could feel her face becoming flushed, but this wasn’t the moment to suffer an attack of nerves. She’d known what she was getting into when she’d first spotted the Wolves’ visit to Toronto in the daily newspaper.It was so high-profile it had leapt out of the sports section altogether and landed on ‘look at me’ page three along with a grainy photo of a couple of the team’s stars.
Rose cared about sport about as much as she was interested in stock prices, but what the featured article had very clearly told her was other women did care. They cared a great deal. Not about the sport—that was all statistics and injuries, sweat and testosterone. No, women were interested in what all red-blooded females the world over paid attention to: a good-looking man with a honed body who knew how to use it.
The Wolves had that in spades, as well as the addition of some very high-profile players. And then there was that Russian thing they had going on. Melancholy eyes and high broad cheekbones, and rich dark accents that rolled r’s like Formula One™-tuned tyres—hard and fast into the corners.
Rose liked to think she knew exactly what women wanted. She liked to think she was an expert. She—and the bank that held her loan—was depending on her expertise.
She wanted to prove to the world—or perhaps only to metropolitan Toronto—that she knew what women wanted in a man and how to get it.
Except she hadn’t reckoned on this man. He was talking quietly to the guy at his side, but his gaze kept sweeping the room, bored, moody.
Simmering, Rose decided, fanning herself with the programme the girl at the door had shoved into her unresisting hand.
It seemed the city’s press had turned up to hear what these young, built Russian athletes, uncomfortable in their suits, had to say. The Russian national ice hockey team was dominant in the sport, but this Siberian team had all the glamour of its owner, Plato Kuragin, whose personal wealth and notorious reputation existed apart from the team. With him was a former national team coach but not, Rose noted, the couple of players—twin brothers—the NHL here in Canada were keen to poach. More star Russian athletes had come out of the Wolves team than any other in the country.
Not that Rose cared—and she knew that neither did any of the other women in the room if they were honest. What mattered was that the guys were all hot. This press jaunt wasn’t about sport. It was about sex. Sex sold everything nowadays.
Women wanted them. Men wanted to be like them. She wanted a couple of ice hockey players to do a guest spot for her dating agency. It was publicity money couldn’t buy, and as she didn’t have very much money she intended to use charm to get what she wanted. A Southern woman’s greatest asset.
It was why she hadn’t approached the Wolves management team with her request. She had decided to put her man-handling skills to the ultimate test.
Except the best of the bunch, Mr Tall, Bored and Built, was the one footing the bill, and Rose suddenly knew she was in a lot of trouble—because feminine instinct told her Plato Kuragin wasn’t a man she could handle. At all.
Rose had never seen a man less in need of a dating agency. He was built like an athlete, but everything about him asserted authority and power. She didn’t have to be told who he was. Oh, yes, this was the guy who would cause her some trouble.
Well, her daddy hadn’t raised a quitter, and that was why she was standing here in the middle of a media scrum in Toronto’s Dorrington Hotel with that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
People were firing questions at him in Russian and English, and although she didn’t understand much of it she heard every word said in the deep, deliberate voice from up front. Wanting to get another look at him, Rose shuffled sideways in an effort to detach herself from the scrum.
‘Pardon. Sorry. Just a sec—sorry.’
This wasn’t strictly necessary—in fact understated to the point of invisible was supposed to be her modus operandi—but she now had an uninterrupted view. A daunting view.
Thank God he wasn’t in her plan. She could not possibly approach this man.
And then she realised he’d stopped speaking. He was looking at her. His eyes, so deep and intense in their regard, were riveted on hers, and what she saw in them had a direct effect on her breathing. As in it completely stopped.
He angled his big muscular body towards her and what broke the spell, Rose realised, was the fact that she’d stepped towards him. Just fractionally, but clearly enough for him to notice.
Also enough to step on the back of the shoe of the woman in front of her, who said something rude. And then the facilitator standing on the podium made a gesture towards her and said, ‘Anglisti? English?’
A microphone was shoved in front of her face. Rose looked down at it and back up into those spectacular, mesmerising eyes that were … Why was he looking at her like that?
Ask a question, Rose. He wants you to ask him a question.
Her throat, already dry and unaccountably scratchy, was constricted. She ran her tongue along her bottom lip. From somewhere her voice came, all high and breathy and really, really Texan.
‘Are y’all single?’
PLATO was not a fan of the media, but he knew how to play their game. You turned up; you used the publicity; you told them nothing.
Not that it would stop the tabloid reports, but it might deflect somewhat from the constant stream of drivel emanating from his last five-minute girlfriend about blondes and orgies on super-yachts. The bath of vintage champagne a burlesque dancer was supposed to have performed in at his recent twenty-eighth birthday celebration was the most current story doing the rounds. Yet, despite that last report actually being true, there was something belittling about seeing it all strung out like so many coloured lights—as if in the end this was his net worth. Lurid entertainment for the masses.
His media profile, however, helped out the team, and he had turned up today to give the coach and the boys the benefit of his press exposure.
It was a simple meet-and-greet before the match, but his mind was elsewhere. He’d spent this morning at a local gaol as his lawyers went through the paperwork to get two of his best players out of the cells. They were both currently holed up in a hotel room with Security. He didn’t trust them on their own. But it was only a matter of time before the story broke.
For the time being, though, he needed to keep a cap on it.
Then he saw her.
She gazed unblinkingly back at him, and if eyes were the windows to the soul these eyes had the curtains wide open, the bed unmade and a woman lying bare naked, all hot and flushed and bothered. And waiting.
Oh, yeah, this was enough to take his mind off the team.
Big blue eyes, round cheeks dusted with rosy colour, and a ruby curve of a mouth that made her look on the verge of a smile. He catalogued every one of her attributes and found his own mouth predictably returning that smile. Until this moment he’d had nothing to smile about all day. Things had just turned around.
Plato found himself standing a little straighter, with purpose edging back his shoulders. She was an angel, he thought, amused at his own susceptibility. The subtle fullness of her face made him unaccountably think of Renaissance Madonnas.
Da, a stunningly beautiful girl. In any era.
Aware she had completely stolen away his attention from the event at hand, he asked for her question.
For a moment her blank expression had him about to redirect to someone else, but then the little goddess licked her sweet ruby lips, opened her mouth, and asked the only question that needed no answer.
The entire world knew he was single.
At this moment, thanks to the disgruntled ex-girlfriend, he was possibly the most single man on the planet.
As the room reacted with laughter the girl, goal achieved, gazed levelly back at him.
Wealth and good-looks had given him rock star privileges when it came to women—privileges he was no longer so quick to indulge in. But she was not to know that. For a moment he allowed himself the fantasy of having her brought up to his suite. He’d have her run that accent over him on her knees, bury his hands in that thick dark hair. He’d …
… lost his goddamned mind.
Another question came at him. This time something about the national team. He could answer that in his sleep—which was just as well because Blue Eyes was making her way to the front of the room and she had taken his full attention with her.
She was bold. He had to give her that. A member of his security team intercepted her, and from the corner of his eye he watched as she remonstrated with the man.
Then a sharp-eyed rep from the Moscow Times lifted a hand, and the questions zeroed in on the rumour that Sasha Rykov would be signing with a Canadian team. Plato’s attention swerved back to doing an effective job of spin to keep the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind. As long as the press were asking about Rykov they wouldn’t be asking any uncomfortable questions about the absence of two of their best players.
The coach, Anatole Medvedev, fielded the next question, and after several more it was meet-and-greet time. He made it a practice to keep moving in these situations, keeping any interaction brief. There were corporate sponsors and a lot of journalists. He’d keep his eyes on the boys. A few of them were still wet behind the ears, but the language barrier would solve any concerns about an info leak.
Blue Eyes had vanished, taking his sexual fantasy with her.
Feeling a little shaky after her encounter with the big, bad boss of the Wolves, Rose looked around the room, knowing it was better to get this done fast—kind of like pulling a tooth. All she needed was two definite takers.
It crossed her mind that it still wasn’t too late. She could walk out of here, go home, forget about the publicity. She was uncomfortably aware her behaviour could be perceived as a little underhand. But this was about more than her business. It was about the women’s shelter where she volunteered, and where she hoped to be able to offer more than just her professional counsel. If Date with Destiny was the success she hoped it could be, there was a real chance come the end of the year, when the lease on the shelter came up, that they could move to larger, better premises.
And there was no way she was going to get even one of these players on side through legitimate avenues. She’d tried. No one would speak to her.
On a less important but personal level, today was also about firming up her confidence in herself. If she could do this—if she could take on an entire Russian ice hockey team with a bit of charm and a line of chat—she could finally put the past into a box and ship it to Utah. She was done with being that unhappy, humiliated girl who had fled Houston two years ago.
She spotted a couple of team members gripping wineglasses like life jackets, clearly cut off by the language barrier. They would have been easy pickings—they reminded her of herself once—but they weren’t the ones she wanted. She wanted confident, a bit brash, hard to pin down. Those were the guys who would sell her business.
It was absurd, but it was human nature. You always wanted what you couldn’t have. A guy who had the world at his feet, who could have any woman, who could walk away at any time, was not long-term material. That was certainly not the type of guy she wanted on her books. Too much hard work.
But they were perfect for publicity purposes.
She just realised she’d described Plato Kuragin to a tee. Not that she would be approaching him any time soon. She was confident, but she wasn’t delusional.
Her plan was to send a couple of these hockey boys out on dates, add a film crew to the mix, and pull in a favour with a local TV producer who was the friend of a friend who had assured her a spot if she could pull it off.
Now she only had to find a couple of photogenic specimens and run her little pick-up spiel by them.
She had a lot of competition. There were some seriously gorgeous women here. But attracting a man’s attention had less to do with looks and more to do with confidence—and it helped to have a plan.
She fixed herself in front of the dark-haired athlete she’d seen earlier, smirking for the press corps.
‘Oh, my, nobody move!’ She made a helpless gesture, lifted her gaze so that they made definite eye contact, and then dropped to her knees. ‘My contact lens!’ she wailed.
The guy dropped to his haunches and cast his gaze around on the floor—but mainly had a good long look at the shape of her bottom and thighs outlined by her crouching position. A few minutes of pointless searching and she was coming to her feet and holding out her hand.
She was aware they were being surreptitiously watched by a couple of women, and Rose knew she’d made a good choice. She thanked him, made sure she kept eye contact because guys liked confidence, bemoaned how fuzzy the world suddenly looked and asked him how he was enjoying Toronto.
It only took a few minutes before she had his vital statistics: enthusiastic, a bit dull, and possessing less confidence around women than his outer swagger would suggest. But he had the face of an angel. It wasn’t hard to scrawl her cell number on his hand, and she added her name: ‘Rose’. He didn’t look bright enough to remember it if she simply left her trademark drawing of the flower.
It was her signature strategy. Handing out business cards would be intimidating to some of these boys, and likely to go straight into the bin. The coy girl who pressed ink to their palm was going to be remembered.
Everyone was sceptical about a young woman setting up her first business on such a flimsy premise as matchmaking, but Rose knew her youth was on her side. She came across as unthreatening, unserious, and to some of these men as a bit of harmless fun. The fact she had been doing this since she was eight years old and considered herself an old hand at it was her secret weapon.
After all, she had managed to find a wife for her father, and two of her four brothers, and several of her girlfriends were happily settled with men Rose had helped them land.
It was a little different when she was doing the landing, keeping a smile on her face despite the bite of her heels and the uncomfortable warmth of her wool suit, and every time she approached a new face her heart began to pound.
Today was all about Date with Destiny, but in the days leading up to this, as she’d formulated her plan, something else had been growing alongside it. Right now it was gnawing at her, and if she was honest with herself turning up today was about much more than business. There was a recklessness in choosing to go this route that turned it into the bold move she needed to make. She had played it safe for four years under the watchful eyes of her fianc?’s ambitious family, and where had that got her? What did it say about her matchmaking skills when she was twenty-six and still single …?
No, she was going to put herself on the line—for the business but more importantly for herself—and if pesky doubts were already crowding in she’d just ignore them.
But so far, so good, and she hoped the results would be at least one phone call later today. Then she could make her approach.
Plato watched as Blue Eyes cut a swathe through his boys. Every time he looked around she was with a different player. What in the hell was she up to? Although given a couple of seconds he could guess.
He was on the move away from the CEO of one of the brands the boys would be wearing on their shirts on Saturday when he heard a soft, twangy ‘Hey …’ Against his better judgement he halted, turned, made a gesture to his security officer, who was barring her path.
A big smile crossed her lovely face and up came some serious dimples. He hadn’t expected those. He had expected the approach, however.
He could see all of her now. She was wearing a double-breasted blue and black plaid wool jacket and a knee-length matching fitted skirt. A pair of long shapely legs in black tights plunged down into aqua coloured high heels. Vaguely he understood this was some form of retro fashion statement. Her dark hair was pulled back severely from her face, but it only served to draw attention to those big eyes, that lush mouth, the slightly upturned nose and the apple-round curve of her cheeks and gently rounded chin, echoing the curves below.
And she had some serious curves. She was all woman.
‘Y’all didn’t answer my question,’ she said brightly.
This was going to kill him. ‘Not as single as you’d probably like, detka,’ he said.
She crossed the space between them.
‘I get that you probably don’t want to talk right now,’ she said rapidly.
Up close, she was not quite as confident as she had initially appeared. Her gaze cut shyly away as he looked down at her, but instinct and experience with women told him it was a calculated gesture.
She looked back up, a determined glint in her eyes, and waved a gold pen. ‘Can I give you my cell number?’
He chuckled and reluctantly turned away. She was beautiful and persistent.
To his surprise he felt her hand close over his forearm. If she’d been a man his security detail would have been all over her, but they’d seen the exchange. Women approached him all the time. He was unfailingly polite, but definite. He did the chasing.
‘Please,’ she said, flashing those dimples as if she wasn’t accosting the man everyone in this room wanted to talk to but just a random guy in the street.
She took his hand and he let her, curious to see what she was up to. Her touch was gentle, as soft and female as the rest of her looked.
She waved the pen. ‘Promise not to wash it off.’
He allowed her to ink several digits across his palm.
‘My name is Rose Harkness,’ she said sweetly, suddenly all eyes and sincerity, ‘and I’ve got a business proposition for you. Call me.’
Business proposition? Was that what they were calling it these days?
He didn’t bother to glance at the number, but he did take a last look at what he was leaving behind. A year ago he might have taken her up on the offer, and even now he was tempted to take her along with him. She ticked all the boxes: beautiful, built, no strings. But he wasn’t doing one-nighters with women any more, and he wasn’t letting her ricochet through his team either. He shrugged, gave her a wink and kept moving.
As he stepped into the service elevator with the Wolves coach, Anatole Medvedev, and his head of security, he said, ‘Make sure that woman is turned out of the hotel. She’s got an agenda.’
That went well, thought Rose. At least she’d got all her lines out. For a moment her vocal cords had seized up when Plato Kuragin had run his critical gaze over her. A man who dated supermodels and actresses and other women without bottoms to speak of. She’d been too overwhelmed even to check his reaction. Yet she’d stood her ground, she’d run her line by him, and he’d seemed to enjoy it—although there was a fine line between an unusual approach and ending up sounding like a groupie.
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