‘No way, Katie. You need to stay in your room when he gets here.’ Megan’s hand trembled as she picked up one of the diamond drop earrings Annalise had loaned her to match the sleek satin floor-length gown it had taken her father’s mistress an eternity to select during their endless shopping expedition that afternoon. The sting as the thin silver spike penetrated the rarely used hole in her lobe did nothing to calm the rapid flutter of Megan’s heartbeat. She breathed deeply and picked up the other earring. She needed to stop hyperventilating or she was liable to pass out before De Rossi even arrived.
‘But I want to meet him, to make sure he doesn’t take advantage of you,’ Katie said, the fire in her eyes accompanied by a petulant pout. ‘He’s rich, arrogant and scary gorgeous. You’ve got zero experience of guys like him. Did you see the cover shot of him on that boring business magazine you get? He even looks hot in one of those stuffy suits.’
Yes, she had seen the magazine, she’d even re-read the interview with De Rossi to give herself some useful topics of conversation. But all the article had really done – illustrated with all those photos of him looking broad and muscular and indomitable – was make her panic increase. And Katie’s misguided attempts to protect her were not helping.
‘What if he tries to ravage you?’ Katie added, the battle she’d been waging for the last two hours – to stand between Megan and De Rossi’s super-human seduction skills – starting to wear on Megan’s already frazzled nerves.
De Rossi was due to arrive in less than five minutes and Katie’s misguided reading of the situation was the last thing Megan needed. But she would never tell Katie the truth. That the only thing standing between them and financial ruin was Megan’s mission to seduce De Rossi – not the other way around – because that would only make Katie panic more about Megan’s date in the lion’s den. And Megan was already panicking enough for both of them.
She’d spent most of her life shielding her sister, ever since the day she’d stood beside a nine-year-old Katie at their mother’s graveside and held her as her little sister shed real tears for a woman who had abandoned them.
She was not about to stop now.
But sometimes shielding Katie from the realities of life could be very trying. Megan poked the second earring into her earlobe with an unsteady hand and absorbed the sting, attempting to tune out Katie’s next offensive.
‘I can’t believe you won’t even let me meet him. All I want to do is make sure he knows not to mess with you.’ Katie stood defiantly behind her, every sinew in her slim, coltish body fraught with challenge and righteous determination. ‘At least promise me you won’t let him lure you back to his love nest on Central Park West.’
‘His what nest?’ Megan would have laughed at the term, if her heart hadn’t just jumped into her throat.
‘Don’t look like that.’ Katie rolled her eyes, frustrated. ‘That’s what they called it in Giselle Monroe’s piece in The Post. Didn’t you read it?’
‘No I did not, and you shouldn’t have either. It’s salacious gossip.’ The last thing she needed to read was the model’s kiss-and-tell account of De Rossi’s sexual prowess when she was nervous enough already.
‘According to Giselle,’ Katie continued undeterred. ‘The guy’s insatiable in the sack, he can make a woman…’
‘Katie, for goodness sake shut up!’ She swung round on the stool. ‘I didn’t read it, because I didn’t need to. This isn’t a proper date.’ Even if the memory of one look from the man was still giving her goosebumps a month after the fact. ‘Dad asked him to escort me. He may not even turn up.’ The hope that he might have forgotten the arrangement, had guilt coalescing in her stomach to go with the panic.
She was Whittaker’s only hope. She’d promised to do this thing, even if the thought of the computer codes buried in her purse was burning a hole in her conscience.
The sound of the front door buzzer made them both jump.
‘So he’s not gonna show? Huh?’ Katie said, looking triumphant.
Megan cursed under her breath, and stood to check out her reflection. The gown was sleek and simple in its elegance, the bias-cut satin snug enough to enhance her curves without offering them up on a platter. Or at least that’s what Annalise had insisted.
Diamonds sparkled in the thin straps that held up the bodice, which plunged low enough to entice but not low enough to give Megan an anxiety attack. Yet. A faux fur wrap to hold off the night time chill in late April, and four-inch heels – which were as high as she could go without risking a twisted ankle — an elaborate updo that held her unruly hair in some kind of order, a five-hundred dollar make up session and the delicate diamond drop earrings completed the outfit. Annalise had told her the emsemble said sophistication and purpose, rather than panic and desperation.
Megan wasn’t so sure.
She heard the front door of the apartment being opened by their housekeeper Lydia Brady and the low murmur of a deep masculine voice.
Awareness rippled up her spine and she grasped her sister’s wrists. ‘Stay here, Katie, I’m warning you. This is going to be humiliating enough without you there making me feel even more self-conscious.’
Katie pulled her hands free, the spark of defiance disappearing for the first time in hours. ‘Why would it be humiliating?’
‘Because I’m not his type and he’s only taking me as a favour to Dad.’
And Dad expects me to seduce him. Somehow. And then commit a crime to save Whittaker’s.
‘What do you mean, you’re not his type?’ Katie’s gaze travelled over Megan’s outfit, the appreciation in her wide green eyes making Megan’s heart pound even harder. ‘You look absolutely stunning. Just like Mum. I wish I had at least a few of your curves.’ She flung her arms around Megan’s shoulders, holding her tight for a few precious seconds. ‘You’re going to knock his designer socks off, you silly moo,’ Katie whispered in her ear, before she drew back. Warmth suffused Megan.
Even when she was being a pain in the backside, Katie was Megan’s greatest cheerleader and her best friend.
‘Which is precisely why you need me there to make sure he doesn’t get any ideas,’ Katie added, in case Megan hadn’t figured that out already after the four-hour campaign. ‘Are you absolutely sure you don’t want me to threaten him with my kick-boxing skills?’
‘You gave up kick-boxing after two sessions,’ Megan pointed out.
‘What if I threaten to macramé him to death instead, then,’ Katie offered – probably only half joking. ‘I did a killer macramé piece for my course.’
The chuckle that popped out of Megan’s mouth was part gratitude and part hysteria. Whatever happened with De Rossi, her life was likely to be irrevocably changed once tonight was over. Because she’d either be in his bed, or in a prison cell. Her sister’s silly joke helped to ground her, though, and confirm what she already knew: that protecting Katie and her dreams, and protecting Whittaker’s, was worth sacrificing her self-respect and throwing herself at De Rossi tonight.
All Megan had to do now, was figure out how to do that without having a nervous breakdown.
Lydia Brady stepped into the room. ‘Mr De Rossi has arrived, Megan.’ The older woman smiled. ‘You look beautiful dear.’
‘Thank you, Lydia.’ Nerves screamed across her bare shoulders, and the hot brick in her stomach sunk lower.
Letting go of her sister’s hands, she walked towards the dressing-room door, affecting the expression she had practiced in the mirror for hours last night. Polite, confident and, she hoped, at least a little alluring.
Her heels echoed on the marble flooring as she made her way down the corridor, but as she turned into the apartment’s plush lobby area, all the air seized in her lungs and her steps faltered.
Dario De Rossi looked up from adjusting his cuffs, his crystal blue eyes locking on her face like a tractor beam, and sending the sizzle of electric energy through her body.
The man looked devastating in a tux. Tall and broad, his powerful body only made more intimidating by the classic black tailoring which emphasised the magnificent width of his shoulders, the leanness of his waist and the length of his legs.
How tall was he? At least three inches above her father’s six foot.
She took a careful breath and forced herself to carry on walking, grateful her wrap covered her cleavage when the assessing gaze roamed down, setting off a series of mini explosions and making the brick between her legs grow hot.
His English was so perfect, with only the slightest hint of his Italian heritage, it felt strangely intimate to have him greet her in his native language. The way the deep husky rumble of his voice skated across already over-sensitive flesh though, was not as disturbing as the dark flash of hunger in his eyes as she drew level.
‘Grazie,’ she said, answering him in Italian automatically.
He lifted her fingers to his mouth, startling her, and pressed his lips to the knuckles.
The gesture should have been polite, gallant even, but for the way his thumb slid across her palm as he lowered her hand, sending arrows of sensation darting up her arm, and into her torso.
She tugged her hand out of his grasp, shocked by her response, as his gaze roamed up to her hair.
‘The colour is natural?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she replied, disconcerted by the approval shining in his eyes.
His firm lips lifted in a smile that managed to be both amused and predatory, as if he were a panther, playing with his prey.
‘I hope I did not offend you,’ he said, the intimacy of his gaze contradicting his apology. The bright blue gaze then dipped to her toes and back, sending seismic ripples over her skin and igniting every pulse point like a firework.
‘Relax, cara mia.’ The rough chuckle scraped across her nerve endings.
A fiery blush crept up her neck. Was he mocking her?
She looked down at her hands, and forced her fingers to release their death grip on the diamond-encrusted purse. Annalise had told her that looking like a lamb being led to slaughter would not entice any man.
Breathe. Remember to breathe. Breathing is good.
But when she raised her head, he was doing that laser beam thing again, as if he could see right through her – to the soon-to-be felon beneath.
‘I’m sorry, I’m tired,’ she mumbled. ‘I’ve had a very busy day.’
Could she actually sound anymore inane? Where was all the scintillating conversation about his business acquisitions that she had been working on for hours?
‘Doing what?’ he asked.
‘Shopping for this dress, mostly. And getting my hair and nails and stuff done,’ she replied honestly. Until today she’d had no idea that trawling the designer boutiques of the Upper East Side and spending fours hours getting waxed and plucked and pampered to within an inch of your life was more exhausting than hiking up Kilimanjaro.
‘Have you now?’ he said, the wry tone making her realise the statement made her sound like a spoilt debutante fishing for a compliment.
Humiliation washed over her.
She knew from the articles she’d devoured about him in the last twenty-four hours, that he had been born into one of Rome’s most notorious slums. He had to know what true exhaustion was. Everything else about his origins was sketchy, something he refused to talk to the press about, but that simple nugget of information had only intimidated her more. She could well imagine how hard De Rossi must have fought to escape his origins – and how hard he would fight now to keep hold of what he had. And what he wanted to acquire.
Her skin burned, her nipples tightening as his gaze met hers. The cool blue was not as icy as she remembered it from their first brief meeting. His lips quirked.
‘It was time and money well spent,’ he said, the casual complement making the flush flare across her collarbone.
Then to her astonishment, he lifted a hand and tucked his forefinger under her chin. The soft brush of the knuckle was like a zap of electricity, firing down to her core as he lifted her face.
She stiffened, stunned by the enormity of her response to a simple touch. She struggled not to jerk her head away, to submit to the proprietary caress, despite being brutally aware of the heat now blazing on her cheeks.
What was going on here? Because the amused quirk on his lips had disappeared? Why was he looking at her so intently?
He drew his thumb across her bottom lip.
‘You are very beautiful in your own unique way,’ he said, his gaze lifting to her chignon. ‘Especially that hair.’
He sounded sincere. Why did that make tonight seem all the more terrifying?
She forced a smile, trying desperately to pretend she wasn’t burning up inside. But she couldn’t resist the involuntary flick of her tongue to moisten lips dried to parchment. He focused on her mouth, and a soft indrawn breath escaped her at the hunger in his eyes.
‘The colour reminds me of a naked flame,’ he said. ‘I wonder if you’re as fiery in bed?’
The heat swelling in her abdomen settled uncomfortably between her legs at the boldly sexual comment. She ought to say something provocative back.
But she didn’t feel provocative, she felt stunned. And hopelessly aroused. And completely out of her depth. Already.
Dario De Rossi wanted her. And while that should have been very good news, because she was supposed to be seducing him, the power dynamic did not feel as if it was in her favour. Surely her thighs wouldn’t be trembling under that hard, heated gaze if it were? She searched her mind for something to say, that wouldn’t clue him in to how inexperienced she was.
Annalise had told her in no uncertain terms that De Rossi would not find her gaucheness appealing.
Think, Megan, think. What would Mata Hari do?
‘That’s for me to know,’ she finally managed, allowing the desire her body couldn’t seem to control to show in her voice. ‘And for you to find out, if you dare.’
‘There’s not much I wouldn’t dare, cara,’ he said, the cynical edge in his tone, disturbingly compelling.
His hand dropped, and she couldn’t prevent the tiny sob as her body softened in relief.
She was playing a very dangerous game. But she had no choice. She had to brazen this out, pretend she was much more knowing and experienced than she actually was.
Sweeping his hand out in front of him, he smiled, and she became a little fixated on those firm sensual lips.
‘Let’s get you to the Ball, Cinderella.’
She pushed out a strained laugh and walked past him, only to tense as his hand settled on the base of her spine. Sensation flashed down to her bottom, but she carried on walking, acting as if the feel of his hand wasn’t burning through her clothing.
The ride down in the lift was excruciating, the deceptively light touch driving her insane. He kept his palm there the whole time, guiding her where he wanted her to go, and never letting her stray more than an inch from his side with the subtlest of gestures. But even so, the heat grew.
As they walked out of the apartment building, past the doorman, her nerves were screaming, the controlling pressure so light it was torture not to stretch against his hold. Her body waged a battle between wanting to kick off her heels and race away from him down the sidewalk, while another, much more elemental urge, had her longing to ease closer to him and let the heat of his body overwhelm her.
The night chill caught her hair, making the tendrils the stylist had spent an hour carefully teasing out of the chignon dance against her neck. She shivered, the skin there already over sensitized by the feel of his gaze boring into her from behind.
The sleek black limousine was parked at the curb, a man in a dark suit and a cap waiting for them. The chauffeur opened the door and tipped his hat giving her a polite smile.
She eased into the shadowed interior, the split in the long skirt of her dress pushing open to reveal her thigh almost up to the hip.
She heard a gruff intake of breath. And had to tramp down on the desire to escape out the other side of the vehicle. The cool leather pushed against the back of her knees through the dress.
The guy’s insatiable in the sack… What if he tries to ravage you?
Katie’s foolish observations came back to haunt her, as De Rossi folded his big body into the seat beside her. His wide shoulders filled up the opposite side of the car and made the spacious luxury black leather interior feel unbearably cramped and claustrophobic.
He leant across her to grasp the seatbelt. She pulled back, his face inches from hers, his scent surrounding her. Sandalwood and musk and man. But as his eyes met hers, he only smiled again and pulled the seatbelt down to click it into place, his knuckles brushing her hip.
‘Why are you so skittish, Megan?’ he asked.
‘I’m just a little nervous, Mr De Rossi.’ She blurted out, then glanced around the car searching for a plausible excuse. She was supposed to be flirting with him, making him think she was available for a quick fling, not quaking like someone standing on a fault line. ‘About the Ball. I don’t want to let my father or the company down. It’s my first time representing them at such a prestigious event.’ Which was actually true, ordinarily that responsibility alone would be reason enough for her nerves.
The warm proprietary palm settled over her leg, and gave her knee a quick squeeze, touching her again in a way that made her feel owned.
‘My name is Dario.’ His jaw clenched and she noticed the bunched muscle, twitching. Was it possible she was affecting him as much as he was affecting her?
The thought thrilled her on some visceral level, but disturbed her more.
The possibility of playing him at his own game was almost as terrifying as the endorphins careering through her for the first time ever in her life.
‘We are on a date, remember,’ he murmured.
‘Thank you for agreeing to escort me,’ she said, finally remembering her manners. ‘It was nice of you.’
‘Nice?’ He seemed amused and surprised by the suggestion. ‘Not many women have accused me of that.’
She could well imagine. ‘My father really appreciated you doing us this favour.’ More than De Rossi would ever know. Hopefully.
‘There is nothing to appreciate,’ he said, cryptically. ‘I only favours when I expect something in return.’
‘What do you expect from me?’ she said, then realised how suggestive it sounded a moment too late. ‘I don’t mean…’ She stumbled. ‘I just…’
‘I expect nothing from you, Megan.’ He cut into her rambling denials with the skill and precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel. ‘I did this favour for your father.’
Those staggeringly blue eyes studied her, the knowledge in them unnerving her even more. Sensation skittered down her spine, making her breath seize in her lungs, the car’s interior now devoid of oxygen. Did he know the real reason her father had asked him to escort her tonight? Was this charade already doomed to failure?
‘Don’t look so terrified, cara,’ he said and she tried to school her features, not to give away here fear.
‘I promise not to bite. Unless you want me to,’ he said, before touching the intercom button to inform the driver to proceed.
Pinpricks rioted over her skin, as the car whisked away from the curb and she imagined those straight white teeth nipping at all her most sensitive places.
She forced a smile, attempting to shake off the sensual fog he seemed to weave around her so effortlessly.
This was going to be the longest night of her life. Her physical reaction to him was too intense, too overwhelming. How was she supposed to survive an evening in his company without telling him every one of her secrets?