Authors: Cara Albany
THE SHEIKH'S SECOND CHANCE BRIDE
Qazhar Sheikhs series Book 5
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The decision had been made.
Lana gazed at the tall, devastatingly, handsome, dark-haired man on the other side of the ballroom dance floor and raised the glass to her quivering lower lip.
She sipped hurriedly on the sweet wine and swallowed, feeling the sudden tightness in her throat.
Why was she so nervous? Wasn't it entirely normal for a young, successful American woman to decisively choose the man with whom she would spend the evening? Because that was what she had just done. Wasn't it?
Even if he didn't know it yet. Even if they hadn't even spoken or danced. Even if it would be the first time she would behave in such a brazen manner with a total stranger. What an old-fashioned notion that was, she chided herself.
What she was thinking of was nothing less than a wild, impulsive fling with a gorgeous stranger.
One night stand?
Lana frowned at that thought.
Don't be ridiculous, she told herself. It's not like you've ever done that before. Maybe it was a bad idea, after all.
Lana glanced across at the stranger.
But, dear Lord, was he handsome!
Drop dead, panty meltingly gorgeous.
And he was standing there, oblivious to Lana's searching gaze. He was chatting casually with an elderly couple. He had what could only be described as an imperious air about him. Every so often he would turn his head and gaze around the room. When he did so, Lana was granted a view of his noble profile. The strong slash of the nose; the high cheekbones; the firm line of a determined jaw.
But, it was his eyes that had first captured Lana's attention. They burned with a fierce, dark glow beneath heavy, ridged brows. His gaze had an urgency about it as if he already knew he was only at this fund-raising event for a short while.
A sudden image flashed into Lana's mind, and she felt her face flush, her heartbeat quickening to match the sudden change of tempo of the music from the distant stage. His body claiming her; his gaze burning hot; his hands exploring Lana.
She tried, vainly, to push the rebellious thoughts away, forcing her attention away from the compelling and very intriguing stranger. But it was impossible. The stranger had already found his way into her consciousness, intruding, taking temporary possession of Lana's thoughts.
Lana had no idea who he was, but one thing she did know was that he must be someone of substance for him to be present at this very expensive fundraiser in one of New York's swankiest hotels.
Lana herself was present in a purely professional capacity. She'd only recently started work with a prominent charity, and this was her first outing. It was her job to schmooze with some of the wealthy people and try to persuade them that they really must donate to the evening's worthy cause.
The sound of classical music drifted down from the stage at the far end of the room. Up on stage was a famous quartet of musicians who'd flown in from Europe. Lana recognised the piece. A quartet by Mozart, unless she was mistaken.
On the floor, expensively attired guests chatted and eyed each other. There was more than a hint of envy on many of the faces. Some very famous people had turned out for this event, and Lana was more than proud to be part of such an exclusive affair. It was such a long way from her embarrassingly humble origins.
She took another long sip of wine. No-one was going to know about that, she told herself. She was only beginning to win acceptance amongst her small coterie of associates. If they knew where Lana had come from...
Well, they might not approve, that's all she could say about that. Some things were best kept secret.
Speaking of secrets, Lana briefly debated how she was going to find a way to meet the tall stranger. He certainly wasn't someone who she'd seen on the guest list.
Lana frowned at that thought. Security was tight, and no-one could get in who didn't belong.
He had to be someone special.
Time to find out.
Lana started to make her way toward the stranger. As she eased her way through the crowd of guests, she briefly lost sight of him. Lana smiled politely at the guests as they recognized her and told Lana just what a lovely evening it was turning out to be.
Lana tried her best to be polite, but all she could think of was what she was going to say to the stranger; how she was going to pretend she wasn't interested in him for anything else except fundraising.
Lana emerged from the crowd and halted.
The stranger was gone.
Lana gazed along the side of the room, trying her best not to seem too eager, not too disappointed.
The elderly couple with whom the stranger had been chatting squinted at Lana. The elegantly dressed woman came up to Lana.
"My dear," she said taking hold of Lana's elbow. "This is such a wonderful evening. You've done an excellent job organizing it."
Lana smiled and shook her head. "It wasn't just me, ma'am. There's a team of us, and we all played our part. I can't take all the credit."
The woman grinned. "How very modest," she said, narrowing her eyes. "That's a quality I don't often find among young folk these days."
Lana shrugged. "Well, that's me. Modest to a fault."
"You looked like you were trying to find someone," the woman said.
Lana tried to look casual as she scanned the nearby faces. "Not really. I was just mingling. You know, pressing the flesh," Lana said. Lana tried not to wince at her choice of words. Her mind was a sudden chaotic jumble.
"That young man we were talking to was so lovely," the woman said. "So fascinating."
Lana tried to feign disinterest. "Really?" she said casually. She could see that the other woman wasn't going to be so easily fooled.
The woman's eyes shone with bright, even mischievous good humor. "I didn't quite catch his name. He was from somewhere abroad, I think."
"Where did he go?" Lana asked slowly, trying hard to make it seem like something of no consequence.
"I think he said he had to leave early," the woman explained.
Lana felt an inexplicable rush of sensation in her middle. "Leaving?"
The woman nodded. "Mentioned something about having a business meeting in the morning."
Lana glanced quickly toward the doors. If she hurried she could probably catch him at the coat check area before he left. For some reason, she needed to know who he was, even if nothing else came of it. Perhaps she could make sure he would be invited to the next event. Another chance to meet him; another opportunity to test herself.
"Thank you," Lana said. The other woman raised a knowing brow as Lana headed off in the direction of the doors. There was more than a hint of amused delight in the woman's expression, but Lana forced herself to ignore that.
Lana made her way down the marble stairs and headed for the coat check room. The sounds of chamber music echoed in the cavernous space around her, competing with the rhythmic beat of her modestly priced heels. Lana grasped the fabric of her white dress as she made her way down the steps. The last thing she wanted was to trip and fall. Ending up in an undignified heap wouldn't be any way to make a first impression.
Once again she asked herself what kind of madness had seized her. This wasn't like anything she'd ever done before.
As she reached the bottom step she halted and immediately felt her pulse race faster. From inside the wood-panelled cloakroom, the tall figure of the stranger emerged.
He was easing his wide shoulders inside his heavy woollen coat. Although New York winters were cold, Lana couldn't imagine this man needing any protection against the elements.
For a moment she thought he looked mildly annoyed about something. Then he realized he was being watched. He raised his brows at the sight of Lana standing at the foot of the steps. He seemed genuinely surprised to see her. His mouth opened slightly, his full lips promising so much.
Lana stiffened and fixed her gaze on the man. Her mind was a sudden, unwanted blank space, and all she could feel was the thudding of her heart, the racing of the blood through her veins.
It was true, she scolded herself suddenly. This was madness. The best thing to do would be to excuse herself and get back up the stairs as fast as possible. It wasn't too late to undo the damage.
"Can I help you?" the man asked. His voice had a deep, velvety quality. His gaze was locked on Lana, and she was sure she saw a flicker of amusement in his eyes.
She hesitated. "I...was wondering if you wanted to leave a bid for our auction before you go," Lana blurted out.
"Auction?" the man said taking a few steps toward Lana. Her heart started to thud as she watched his panther-like movements. There was threat and promise in that body. Once again the urge rose within her to excuse herself and get back to the reception.
The man paused a few feet from Lana and cocked his head to one side. "Have we met?" he asked.
Lana's throat tightened. What was wrong with her? Usually, she didn't have any trouble dealing with potential contributors. Even in her previous jobs she'd never felt as awkward as this. Not with anyone.
"I don't believe we've been introduced," Lana said. "My name is Lana Huntly. I arranged this evening."
"Ah. So you are responsible for this fine evening," he said. A wry smile creased the corner of his mouth. "It's a wonderful cause."
Lana squinted at him. "And you are?"
The man rolled his eyes and sighed. "It's not important who I am. I just called in to say hello to a few friends."
Lana took a step forward, closing the space between them. The man's eyes widened with what Lana thought was the barest hint of growing interest. She saw his gaze flicker briefly down toward her full breasts. Had it been such a good idea to wear a dress with such a plunging neckline, she asked herself.
"I thought I knew everyone who was invited," Lana insisted. "I didn't see you on my list."
The man's eyes narrowed. "You have a list," he said wryly.
"Of course, I do," Lana said defensively. "I know who was supposed to be here, this evening."
The man shrugged. "As I said. Some friends thought I'd find something of interest if I came." He drew in a deep breath, and she saw his broad shoulders rise. There was an appreciative look in those eyes. His nostrils flared, and he ran his tongue briefly along his lower lip. Lana's pulse quickened.
The man moved closer. Lana caught his scent, a mixture of his expensive cologne and a raw, manliness.
"It seems they were right."
Lana froze. The man seemed to loom like a dark giant, his gaze penetrating her to the core of her being. His foreignness was more evident this close-up. She could see the casual ease in his every movement. That came from privilege, from the certainty of wealth. There was an arrogance in his attitude that was almost shocking. It had taken him only a few moments to impress himself upon her like this. She wondered what on earth it would be like to spend even more time with such a man. A tightness seized her chest and heat pulsed down at her core. The suddenness of his effect upon her threw her off balance.
For a moment the need to flee gripped her and she shifted backwards, leaning away from him. This was completely unlike anything she'd experienced. She'd had no idea the man would have this effect upon her. What was wrong with her? What had started out as an impulse to flirt and maybe a little more than that, had descended suddenly into something ridiculous, something almost surreal.
Lana forced her next words out. "You still haven't told me your name."
"I know I haven't," he growled. The smile that curled his full lips was a teasing, taunting gesture of defiance.
"I'm going to have to call security if you don't tell me who you are," she said firmly.
His brows rose. "Really?" he said casually. "You think I'm some kind of threat?"
Lana swallowed and fixed her gaze on the dark pools of his eyes. "We're not supposed to allow strangers into this event," she declared.
His brows furrowed. "Why don't we get to know each other a little better. Then I won't be such a stranger. That seems like a good idea to me." He gave her one final, questioning look and paused, awaiting her reply. He looked like he was starting to enjoy himself.
Lana frowned. "You're teasing me," she said evenly.
"I most certainly am not," he replied. "If you like we can continue this discussion in my room."
"What!" Lana gasped.
He quirked a brow at Lana. "I didn't come chasing after you, did I?"