‘Yours or mine,’ she almost said, the imprint of his sizeable dick stamped on her thigh. But she could do casual as well as he with everyone still watching them in veiled glances. ‘No, not at all. My apologies. Stiletto heels aren’t my usual footwear.’
He glanced down, then up, his smile more personal this time. ‘They look good on you. But you’d better hold on to my arm, Miss Hart. It’s a long way to the dining room. We wouldn’t want you to fall.’
Actually, it was way too long for her skittish senses because his lean hip brushed against her body with each step, his large hand covering hers as she clung to his arm – ‘Just to be safe,’ he’d said – was sending tingles to places she’d rather not receive them, considering the company and venue. And his dark, magnetic beauty this close was doing disastrous things to her breathing. You absolutely will not pant, dammit. Do not fall to pieces under the eyes of twenty Knight Enterprises employees.
Oh, God, he’d come to a stop in the doorway to the dining room and was looking at her, apparently waiting for an answer. ‘Daydreaming,’ she said. ‘Sorry.’
‘I was just saying you could see the oldest merchant house in Amsterdam out that window’ – he nodded – ‘if you’d like. We’re helping with the restoration funding.’
‘I would,’ she said, to be polite.
He looked amused. ‘No you wouldn’t.’
She grimaced. ‘Was I that obvious?’
‘Don’t worry about it. I like to restore buildings.’ He smiled. ‘Most people aren’t any more fascinated with the idea than you are. Let’s find our chairs.’
The room was enormous, embellished in rococo abandon with every costly architectural flourish. Gilded panels in dove grey, mirrored alcoves to display fine sculpture and reflect the light, Versailles parquet flooring favoured by palace architects throughout Europe, a ceiling mural of mythological subjects amusing themselves by playing at love – a subject much admired in the amoral culture of the eighteenth century.
Now, pristinely restored, the reception room used for royal levees in an earlier time served a more prosaic purpose. The table set for twelve was dwarfed by the space. A row of wine glasses sparkled at each place setting, splendid bouquets of spring flowers and white tulips marched down the centre of the table, the china and silver gleamed under the light of glittering crystal chandeliers.
Dominic led her to a chair, then sat to her left at the head of the table. As the others found their places with the help of handwritten name cards slipped into gilded frames, he chatted casually with her about the usual trivialities: the weather, the traffic, the more interesting sights in Amsterdam. Inconsequential small talk that matched his bland expression. He had no intention of seducing Miss Hart under twenty rapt gazes.
Especially since the toasts began the moment everyone was seated, a certain unrestrained foolishness was predictable and he didn’t want it directed at him. One toast followed another, each as effusive, or more effusive, much of the praise directed at Kate. She blushed each time, took a sip of her champagne and blushed some more. Really, this custom was not for the shy or retiring, she decided. Although Nana would have loved it. She drank her vodka straight.
But hours later, with the level of inebriation high and the meal coming to an end, someone sang out, ‘Time to initiate Miss Hart!’
The chant was taken up by everyone except Dominic in a playful, rousing chorus.
At Kate’s questioning glance, Dominic leaned close so he could be heard above the clamour. ‘Feel free to say no. It’s a silly ritual. And as you can see, no one mentions it until they’re roaring drunk.’
‘A tour of Amsterdam’s red-light district.’ He lifted one brow. ‘It can be a shock.’
‘Oh, I see,’ she said on a choked breath. ‘I think I’m too sober to … er … enjoy or … ah … be comfortable—’
‘I agree.’ He stood to gain everyone’s attention. ‘Miss Hart is going to politely decline.’ Then he sat down.
‘No, no, no, no!’ Wild dissent in English and Dutch. Loudly, then very loudly.
Greta smiled at Kate across the table. ‘It’s an experience you might find interesting,’ she said, raising her voice above the crowd. ‘We’ll protect you,’ she added with a wink.
Kate turned red.
Dominic smiled at Kate. ‘Ignore them. We’re the only sober ones.’
She’d wondered at his moderate drinking at dinner. He’d not indulged much. ‘I’m afraid I’m slightly out of my depth when it comes to red-light districts. That’s what comes from being raised in a small town, although I’m sure there are small-town people who are sophisticated – sorry, I’m babbling on. Anyway, everyone’s been quite wonderful tonight.’ She smiled. ‘Thank you.’
‘It’s for me to thank you for your expertise.’ He looked up with a grimace as someone began banging the table and chanting to leave. ‘Lord, they’re bloody loud,’ he said with a sigh.
But their drunken colleagues wouldn’t be deterred, no matter how many times Kate politely refused or Dominic scowled. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. Kate was reminded of college when her friends would pile into her apartment, three sheets to the wind, and drag her off to the pub when she was trying to study. She rarely won those battles either.
Dominic could have put an end to it. Why he didn’t was unclear. Max asked him as much as they followed the crowd in its exuberant passage down Amsterdam’s red-light district.
Dominic flashed him a wry glance. ‘If I knew I’d tell you.’
‘This is pretty hard-core for her.’
‘We don’t know that.’
‘I do. I vetted her. Small-town girl, studied hard, didn’t play much, made it to the big time because she was smart.’
‘What do you mean, didn’t play much?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘I find it does.’
‘Jesus, Nick, are you regressing?’
‘Depends what you mean by regressing.’
‘I mean, asshole, are you looking for a semi-virgin?’
Dominic laughed. ‘There’s no such thing.’
‘She’s damn close, that’s all I’m saying.’
‘Are you her defender?’
‘You didn’t answer my question.’
‘I don’t have to.’ Max was protecting Miss Hart from the big bad wolf; it surprised him. ‘Look,’ Dominic said a moment later, ‘I’m not looking for either a unicorn or a semi-virgin because they don’t exist. She knows what she’s doing.’
‘I’m not so sure. But she’s really a nice kid, Nick. Don’t fuck with her.’
‘Even if she says yes?’
‘I’d like to say, even then, but I suppose she has a mind of her own. She’s just not in your league, Nick. So cut her some slack.’
While the state of Kate’s love life was being discussed, Kate and Greta were walking arm in arm down a brightly lit lane, busy with foot traffic. A tour guide ahead of them was leading a group of Asian couples through the area, keeping up a steady discourse for her curious audience. Groups of college kids with backpacks were everywhere, sitting on the kerbs, strolling down the street, buying weed from hustlers. Some sailors were arguing in front of what looked to be a brothel, ordinary tourists of every age and stripe wandered up and down the warren of small alleys leading off the main thoroughfare. Three-and four-storey buildings lined the narrow streets, and in large, neon-lit windows, women of every age, size and description were on display. Some were clothed, others were nude, and no matter where they were from, from Sweden to Angola to Holland, their services were all for sale.
Kate found the open display of women as merchandise visually shocking at first. But no one seemed to notice and she reminded herself that cultural mores differed from country to country. She understood as well that the sex trade was government-supervised, lucrative and regulated by the police. Several policemen had been stationed at the entrance to the area as affirmation of their authority. All Kate could think of was that she was a long, long way from home.
And clearly too sober.
Not that her sobriety was of any concern to her companions who suddenly veered to the right and surged in a wave towards a bright red door in a building that bore neither a lighted window, a sign nor a number.
Max quickly moved ahead to outdistance the young man in the lead as he shoved open the red door. Walking up to a well-dressed man stationed behind a desk in the large foyer, Max spoke to him briefly. The concierge/receptionist/bouncer looked more like a stockbroker than a guard, Kate thought as she and Greta entered the building. The black marble foyer looked more like an Italian palazzo than a nightclub, and the huge vase of flowers perfuming the air must have cost a small fortune.