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The Italian Prince's Pregnant Bride

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The Italian Prince's Pregnant Bride Sandra Marton HarperCollins EUR It was payday for Prince Nicolo Barbieri.The Italian aristocrat's negotiations to take over Manhattan's SCB bank were about to bear fruit. But he wasn't expecting Aimee Black, granddaughter of the bank's current owner who was pregnant with Nicolo's baby!Nicolo felt duty bound to marry Aimee and give his child his name. But Aimee had other ideas about surrendering herself to this arrogant foreigner, who surely didn't love her! Sandra Marton THE ITALIAN PRINCES PREGNANT BRIDE CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER ONE SHE came hurrying along the sidewalk, enveloped from head to toe in black suede, stiletto-heeled boots clicking sharply, her head bent against the rain-driven wind, and barreled into Nicolo just as he stepped from the taxi. The doorman moved forward but Nicolo had already dropped his briefcase and caught her by the shoulders. Easy, he said pleasantly. Her hood fell back as she looked up at him. Nicolo, always appreciative of beauty, smiled. She was beautiful, with elegant bones, a mouth that looked soft and inviting, and eyes the deep blue of spring violets, all that framed by a mass of honey-colored loose curls. If someone had to run you down, this was surely the woman an intelligent man would choose. Are you all right? She pulled out of his grasp. Im fine. My fault entirely, he said graciously. I should have watched where I was Yes, the woman said, you should have. He blinked. She was looking at him with total disdain. His smile faded. Though he was Roman, hed spent a good part of his life in Manhattan. He understood that civility was not an art here but it was she whod run into him. I beg your pardon, signorina, but But then, she said coldly, I suppose people like you think you own the street. Nicolo lifted his hands from her shoulders with exaggerated care. Look, I dont know what your problem is, but You, she said crisply, are my problem. What was this? A Mona Lisa with the temperament of a hellcat. Innate old-world gallantry warred with new-world attitude. Attitude won. You know, he said brusquely, I apologized to you when there was no need, and you speak to me as if I were scum. You could use some manners. Just because Im a woman Is that what you are? His smile was as cold as his words. Lets see about that, shall we? Temper soaring, logic shot to hell, Nicolo pulled the blonde to her toes and kissed her. It lasted less than a second. Just a quick brush of his mouth over hers. Then he let go of her, had the satisfaction of seeing those violet eyes widen in astonishment And caught the rich, sweet taste of her on his lips. Sweet heaven. Had he gone un popazzo? He had to be. Only a crazy man would haul a mean-tempered woman into his arms on Fifth Avenue. You, she said, youyou Oh, but it had been worth it. Look at her now, sputtering like a steam engine, that icy demeanor completely shattered. She jerked free of his hands. Her arm rose. She was going to slap him; he could read it in those amazing eyes, eyes that flashed lethal bolts of lightning. He probably deserved itbut hed be damned if hed let her do it. He bent his head toward hers. Hit me, he said softly, and I promise, Ill make your world come crashing down around your ears. Her lips formed a phrase he would not have imagined women knew. Not the women in his world, at any rate, but then none of them would have accused a man of something clearly their fault. Why be modest? The truth was, not a woman hed ever met would have blamed him even if he were at fault. The hellcat glared at him. He returned the look. Then she swept past him, honey-blond mane glittering with raindrops, black suede coat billowing after her like a sail. He watched her go until she was lost in the umbrella-shrouded crowd hurrying through the chilly March rain. Then he took a deep breath and turned his back to her. His eyes met the doormans. Nothing. Not the slightest acknowledgment that anything the least bit unusual had happened but then, this was New York. New Yorkers had long ago learned it was wisest not to know anything. And a damned good thing for him. Kissing her had been bad enough. Challenging her to call the police Nicolo shuddered. How stupid could a man be? He could have ended up with his face spread across Page Six. Not exactly the publicity one wanted before a meeting with the ninety-year-old head of an investment firm that prided itself on decorum and confidentiality. The rain was coming down harder. The doorman already had his suitcase. Nicolo picked up his briefcase and walked into the hotel. His suite was on the forty-third floor, which gave him an excellent view of the park and the skyline beyond it. When he started looking for a permanent place to live in the city, hed want a view like this. Nicolo tossed his raincoat on a chair. If all went well, hed contact a Realtor after Mondays meeting. If? There was no if about it. The word wasnt in his lexicon. He never went after something without making damned sure he knew when, where and how to get it. That approach was a key to his success. He toed off his shoes, stripped away his clothes and headed for the shower. He was fully prepared for Mondays meeting and his long-anticipated buyout of Stafford-Coleridge-Black. His financial empire was huge, with offices in London, Paris, Singapore, and, of course, Rome. It was time for Barbieri International to move into the New York market. For that, he wanted something that would be the crown jewel of his corporation. In the rarefied echelon of private banking, that could only be Stafford-Coleridge-Black, whose client list read like a Whos Who of American wealth and power. Only one thing stood in the way: SCBs chairman, James Black. I have no idea what youd think to discuss with me, the old man had said when hed finally agreed to take Nicolos phone call. Ive heard rumors, Nicolo had answered carefully, that you are considering a change. You mean, Black had said bluntly, youve heard that Im going to die soon. Well, I assure you, sir, I am not. What I have heard, Nicolo had said, is that a man of your good judgment believes in planning ahead. Black had made a sound that might have been a laugh. Touch, Signore Barbieri. But I assure you, any changes I might make would be of no interest to you. We are family owned and have been for more than two hundred years. The bank has been passed from one generation to another. A brief, barely perceptible pause. But I wouldnt expect you to understand the importance of that. Nicolo had thought how good it was that they were not face-to-face. Even so, he had to work hard to control his temper. Black was an old man but he was in full command of his faculties. What hed said had to be a deliberate, if thinly veiled, insult. This high up the ladder, the international financial community was like an exclusive club. People knew things about each other and what Black knew was that Nicolos wealth and stature, despite his title, had not come from legacy and inheritance but had been solely self-created. As far as the James Blacks of this world were concerned, that was not a desirable image. Probably not desirable as far as Fifth Avenue honey-blondes were concerned, either, Nicolo mused, and wondered where in hell that thought had come from? What mattered, all that mattered this weekend, was his business with Black. It had mattered enough during that phone call to keep his tone neutral when he responded to the flinty old bastards gibe. On the contrary, Nicolo had said. I do understand. Completely. I believe in maintaining tradition. Hed paused, weighing each word. I also believe you would do your institution a disservice if you refuse to hear what I have to say. Hed gambled that Black would bite. Not that it was all that much of a gamble, considering what Nicolo knew. SCB had, indeed, always been family-owned and operated. The problem was that the old man was facing his ninetieth birthday and his sole heir was a grandchild still in school. Still in schooland a girl. Nicolo was sure that tradition, to James Black, meant handing the reins of the company to an heir, not an heiress. Black had never made a secret of his feelings about women in business. And that was probably the one thing the two men could agree on, Nicolo mused as he stepped from the shower. It was what he would build his argument on, Monday morning. Women were too emotional. They were unpredictable and undisciplined. They did well as assistants, even, on occasion, as heads of departments, but as ultimate decision-makers? Not until science figured out a way women could overcome the dizzying up-and-down ride of their hormones. It wasnt their faultit was simply a fact of life. And that, Nicolo thought as he dressed in gray flannel trousers, a black cashmere turtleneck and mocs, was his ace in the hole. Nicolo was the only investor who could afford the indulgence of buying SCB privately. That meant that Black had nowhere to turn except to him, unless he wanted to sell his venerable institution to one of the giant conglomerates hungering for it, then live long enough to see it disappear within the corporate maw. He was the old mans salvation and they both knew it. The moment of truth had come last week when Blacks secretary phoned and said her employer would agree to a brief meeting solely as a courtesy. Of course, Nicolo had said calmly but when he hung up, hed pumped his fist in victory. The meeting meant only one thing: the old man had admitted defeat and would sell to him. Oh, hed undoubtedly make him dance through a couple of hoops first, but how bad could that be? Nicolo slipped on a leather bomber jacket and shut the door to his suite behind him. He wouldnt dance, but hed move his feet in time to the music. Do just enough to placate the old bastard. Then Stafford-Coleridge-Black would be his. Not bad for a boy whod grown up in not-so-genteel poverty, Nicolo thought, and pressed the button for the elevator. The rain had stopped, though the skies were gray and soggy. The doorman flagged a cab. Sixty-third off Lexington, Nicolo told the driver. He was meeting friends at the Eastside Club. The three of them had agreed, via e-mail yesterday, on the benefits of a quick workout, especially since both Nicolo and Damian had just flown in. Private planes or not, a man felt his muscles tighten after a seemingly interminable international flight. Then theyd go somewhere quiet for dinner and catch up on old times. He was looking forward to that. He, Damian and Lucas had known each other forever. For thirteen years, ever since theyd met at a pub just off the Yale campus, three eighteen-year-old kids from three different parts of the world, all of them wondering how in hell theyd survive in this strange country. Survive? Theyd flourished. And formed a tight friendship. They saw each other less frequently now, thanks to their individual business interests, but they were still best pals. And still single, which was exactly how they all wanted it. In fact, they always began the evening with the same toast. Life, Lucas would say solemnly, is short. And marriage, Damian would add even more solemnly, is forever. The last part of the toast was left to Nicolo. And freedom, hed say dramatically, freedom, gentlemen, is everything! He was smiling as his cab pulled up in front of the Eastside Club. It was housed in what had once been a block of nineteenth-century brownstones that had been gutted, completely made over and combined into one structure. A very exclusive health club. The Eastside didnt advertise. No plaque or sign identified it to passersby. Membership was by invitation only, reserved for those who valued privacy and could afford the steep fees that guaranteed it. For all that, the club was completely lacking in pretension. There were no trendy exercise gadgets, no bouncy music, and the only part of the gym with a mirrored wall was the free-weight area so that you could check your reflection to see if you were lifting properly. What there were, in addition to the weights, were punching bags, a pool and a banked indoor track. Best of all, the Eastside was for men only. Women were a distraction. Besides, Nicolo thought as he inserted his key card in the front door lock, it was a relief to get away from them for a while. He had enough women to deal with in his life. Too many, he sometimes thought, when ending a relationship led to tears. He was, hed heard whispered, an excellent catch. He scoffed at that but to himself, he admitted it was probably true. Why not be honest? Good evening, Mr. Barbieri. Nice to see you again, sir. Jack, Nicolo said amiably. He signed in and headed for the locker room. He had money. A private jet. Cars. He owned a ski lodge in Aspen, an oceanfront estate on Mustique, a pied-a-terre in Paris and, of course, there was the palazzo in Rome, the one that had supposedly come to the Barbieri family through Julius Caesar. That was what his great-grandmother had always claimed. Nicolo thought it more likely it had come to them through a thief in Caesars time, but hed never contradicted her. Hed loved the old woman as hed never loved anyone else. Hed always been grateful hed made his first million and restored the ancient but decrepit Palazzo di Barbieri before shed died. Her pleasure had brought joy to his heart. Hed liked making her happy. In fact, he liked making most women happy. It was only when their demands became unreasonable, when they began to talk of The Future, of The Importance of Settling Downand he could almost actually feel the physical weight they put into the phrase when it tumbled from their lipsthat Nicolo knew that Making Them Happy wasnt as important as Not Making a Commitment. No way. Not him. Not yet. For an evening? Of course. A week? Yes. Even a month. Two months. Hell, he wasnt the kind of man to jump from bed to bed. What would the woman in the black suede coat be like in bed? A honey-maned tigress? Or an ice queen? Not that he gave a damn. It was simply a matter of intellectual curiosity. He liked women who enjoyed their femininity. Enjoyed being appreciated by a man. Nicolo hung his things in his locker. It didnt take a psychiatrist to figure out that the tigress was not such a woman. Although, in the bed of the right man, perhaps she could be. The mane of hair. The delicate oval face. The amazing eyes, that tender mouth. And, yes, hed felt its tenderness even in that brush of his lips against hers Fantastico. Hell. He was giving himself a hard-on over a woman whod insulted him, who he would never see again. He didnt want to think about her or any woman. Not this weekend. No distractions. No sex. Like an athlete, he believed in abstinence before going mano a mano. He needed to focus on Mondays meeting. Nicolo pulled on gray cotton running shorts, a sleeveless, ancient Yale sweatshirt and a pair of Nikes. A hard, sweaty workout was just what he needed. The gym was almost empty. Well, it was Saturday night. Only one other guy was in the vast room, pounding around the track with the lonely intensity of the dedicated runner. Damian. Nicolo grinned, trotted over and fell in alongside him. Any slower, he said, picking up the pace, wed be walking. You getting too old to run fast? Damian, who at thirty-one was exactly the same age as Nicolo, shot him a deadpan look. Ill call the paramedics when you collapse. Big talk. A hundred bucks says I can beat you. Twenty times around? Forty, Nicolo said, and shot away. Moments later, they finished in a dead heat and turned to each other, breathing hard and grinning from ear to ear. Hows Rome? Damian said. Hows Athens? The mens grins widened and they clasped each other in a bear hug. Man, Damian said, youre a sweaty bastard. Youre not exactly an ad for GQ. How was your flight? Nicolo took a couple of towels from a stand beside the track and tossed one to Damian. Fine. Some weather just before we landed, but nothing much. Yours? The same, Damian said, wiping his face. I really like this little Learjet I bought. Little, Nicolo said, laughing. Well, its still not as big as yours. Mines always going to be bigger than yours, Aristedes. You wish. It was an old line of banter and made them grin again. So, Nicolo said, wheres Lucas? Were meeting him in Damian looked at his watch. In two hours. You guys picked a restaurant? Well, more or less. Nicolo raised an eyebrow. Meaning? Meaning, Damian said, our old friend bought himself a club. Downtown. The club of the minute, he says. Meaning, crowded. Noisy. Lots of music, lots of booze, lots of spectacular-looking women out for a good time Sounds terrible, Damian said solemnly. Nicolo smiled as he draped his towel around his shoulders. Yeah, I know. But I have an important meeting Monday morning. Well, so do I. Very important. Damian looked at him. So? So, Nicolo said, after a moment, Im hoping to finalize a deal. With James Black. Whoa. That is important. So, tonight we celebrate in advance, at Lucass place. Well, I want to stay focused. Get to bed at a decent hour tonight and tomorrow night. No liquor. No distractions Thee Mou! Dont tell me! No sex? Nicolo shrugged. No sex. Sex is not a distraction. Its exercise. Good for the heart. Its bad for the concentration. Thats BS. We believed it when we played soccer, remember? And we won. We won, Damian said dryly, because the competition was lousy. Im serious. So am I. Giving up sex is against the laws of nature. Idiot, Nicolo said fondly. The men walked to the free weights area and made their selections. Its just a matter of discipline. Unless, of course, there was such an instant attraction you couldnt walk away. Damian grunted as he lifted a pair of twenty-pound weights. And how often is that about to happen? Never, Nicolo answeredand, unbidden, the image of the blonde with the hot eyes and the cold attitude flashed before his eyes. He had been reaching for the twenty-pound weights, too. Instead he lifted a pair of heavier ones and worked with them until his mind was a pain-filled blank. Farther downtown, in a part of Manhattan that was either about to be discovered or still a slum, depending on a buyers point of view, Aimee Stafford Coleridge Black slammed her apartment door behind her, tossed her black suede coat at a chair and kicked off her matching boots. The coat slid off the chair. The boots bounced off the wall. Aimee didnt give a damn. Amazing, how a day that began so filled with promise could end so badly. Aimee marched into the kitchen, filled the kettle with water, put it on to boil and changed her mind. The last thing she needed was a caffeine buzz. She was buzzing enough without it, thanks to her grandfather. Why had he summoned her to his office, if not to make the announcement shed been anticipating? I shall retire next May, hed told her almost a year ago, when I reach ninety, at which time I shall place Stafford-Coleridge-Black in the charge of the person who will guide it through its next fifty years. A person who will, of course, carry on the Stafford-Coleridge-Black lineage. Lineage. As important to James as breathing but that was fine because she, Aimee, was the only person with both the necessary lineage and the proper education to assume command. She had a bachelors degree in finance. A masters degree in business. Shed spent her summers since high school interning at SCB. She knew more about the bank than anyone, maybe even including Grandfather, who still believed in a world devoid of computers and e-mail. Aimee marched into the bedroom and methodically stripped off the gray wool suit and white silk blouse shed deemed appropriate for the meeting with Grandfather this afternoon. Shed wanted to look businesslike, even though she knew damned well you could do as much business in jeans as you could in Armani. Shed even worked up a little speech of assurance about how she wouldnt change a thing, though shed mentally crossed her fingers because there were things that definitely needed changing. Shed presented herself at his office precisely at four. James was a stickler for promptness. Shed kissed his papery cheek, sat down as directed, folded her hands And listened as he told her he had not yet reached a decision as to who would replace him. Be calm, shed told herself. And she had been, or at least shed managed to seem calm as she asked him what decision there was to make. You already said it would be me, Grandfather. I said it would be someone capable, James said briskly. Someone of my lineage. Well The look on his face had frozen her with horror. You dont meanBradley? Bradley. Her cousin. Or her something. Who understood the complexities of second cousins twice removed, or whatever the hell he was? Bradley had been wimping around the bank for years, interning the same as she had, except hed never done a days work, never done anything except try to grope her in the stockroom. Not Bradley, shed finally breathed. Bradley has a degree in economics. Yes. From a college that probably also gave degrees in basket-weaving. Hes well-spoken. He was, once he had three or four straight vodkas in him. And, her grandfather had said, saving the best for last, he is a man. A man. Meaning, natures royalty. A prince, whereas she was a lesser creature because she was female. Grandfather had risen to his feet, indicating that she was no longer welcome in the royal presence. Be here Monday morning, Aimee. Ten oclock sharp. Ill announce my decision then. Dismissed, just like that. Sent out the door, down the wheezing old elevator, into the street where shed walked blindly, no idea where in hell she was or where she was going, which was why she hadnt seen the man and hed almost knocked her down. That despicable, horrible man whod insisted it was she whod walked into him. Whod accused her of not being a woman when, damn him, it was the very fact that she was a woman that was going to deny her the one thing she wanted in life. What a fool shed been. What an idiot. Shed turned down two wonderful job offers because shed believedshed been stupid enough to believe Shed been anguishing over that when the man charged into her. As if she were invisible, which she undoubtedly was because she was female. Oh, the arrogance of men. Of him. The way hed clasped her shoulders and looked down at her from the lofty heights of his lofty maleness. Easy, hed said, and smiled, and thatthe smile, the slight foreign huskiness to the word, the broad shoulders, the ink-black hair, the midnight-blue eyes and the face that was the male equivalent of what had launched a thousand ships, that was supposed to make up for his rudeness? Aimee had told him what she thought of him. Men didnt like honesty. Shed learned that a long time ago. And this one, thisthis bad-mannered stranger, had decided she needed a lesson, that she needed a graphic reminder of her place in the universe Hed kissed her. Kissed her! Put his mouth on hers, the arrogant, miserable son of a bitch. His firm mouth. His soft mouth. His mouth that was, any woman could tell, made for long, deep kisses God, she was in bad shape. Anger, adrenaline, whatever you called it, was pumping through her veins. She was completely stressed out. A man would know what to do to ease such stress. Hed go to a gym and sweat it out. Actually that would work for her, too, but her gym, a gym for women, was closed. Hey, it was Saturday. Date night for the fairer sex, right? Such crap, Aimee said. She could almost feel the steam coming out of her ears. Or a man would call up his buddies, meet them someplace crowded and noisy and guzzle beer. Thats what men under pressure did, didnt they? Go out, drink, talk about stupid things, pick up women? Sex was the great relaxer. Everybody said so. Okay, not her because shed had sex and it had been far from memorable but according to everything shed read, sex could lower your stress levels every time. Aimee snorted. Imagine if a woman did that. Called a friend, went someplace loud to drink and looked for a guy to pick up. Went to bed with him, no strings, no ridiculous exchange of names and phone numbers. Just bed. Just sex. Of course, some women did. They went looking for sex. Sex with a stranger. A stranger with dark hair. Blue eyes. A square jaw, straight nose, firm mouth. And that little accent The phone rang. Let it. Her voice mail could take the call. Hi, her recorded voice said briskly. Youve reached 555-6145. Please leave a message after the tone. Aimee, its Jen. The last person she wanted to talk to! Jen had taken a job with Fox and Curtrain after Aimee pointed her toward it. Im not going to take it, shed said, so why shouldnt you? Why, indeed? Aimee, look, I know this isnt your thing but a new club opened right near me and its supposed to draw a hot crowd. And its Lauras birthday, remember her, from the second floor in our dorm? Shes in town and a bunch of us are getting together to, you know, check out the club There was giggling in the background and Aimee rolled her eyes. Okay, Lauras right. To check out the guys, see if theyre as hunky as everybody says. Jen? Aimee said, picking up the phone. Oh, youre there! Listen, I dont know what youre doing tonight, but Im not doing anything. Ive hadits been one of those days, you know? All the more reason to go with us. Have a drink, listen to some hot music Get picked up by some hot guy, a female voice in the background said, to another round of giggles. Thats the last thing I need, Aimee said. I mean, is that all Im good for? To go to a club where the musics so loud I wont be able to think? To let a guy pick me up, buy me a drink Yeah. I know. Its a meat market out therebut sometimes, well, sometimes that can be fun. You know. No BS. Just an evening of fun and games. Its bad enough men think thats what were all about. That were useless except in the kitchen or the bedroom. We dont have to play into their stupid fantasy. Silence. Then Jen cleared her throat. Okay, she said carefully, so just forget that I Not that I couldnt be some jerks idea of a centerfold playmate, if I wanted. Uh, Aimee, look, I have to run, so I could go to this club with you. Dance, drink, let some guy pick me up for a night of mind-blowing sex! The telephone line hummed with silence again. Then Jen spoke. So, uh, are you saying you want to go with us? Aimee took a deep, deep breath. Youre damned right I am, she said. Twenty minutes later, dressed in a red silk dress shed bought on sale and never had a reason to wear, ditto for a pair of strappy gold sandals, Aimee took a last look in the mirror, gave her image a quick salute, then headed out the door. CHAPTER TWO LUCASS CLUB was everything Damian had promised. Like most hot Manhattan nightspots, it was in a neighborhood that had once been grungy and commercial and now was grungy and upscale. Streets that had once been relegated to the nitty-gritty of daily life now came alive after dark. Warehouses had given way to expensive, exclusive clubs. Lucass place was located in a dark brick building with shuttered windows. There was no sign to indicate that what had once been a factory was now Le Club Hot. No sign. No published telephone number. You either knew the club existed or you didnt, which went a long way toward sorting out the clientele, Nicolo thought wryly as he opened a heavy, brass-hinged door and stepped, with Damian, into what might have been the small lobby of an upscale hotel. The behemoth who greeted them was not someone youd ever find behind a reception desk. They gave him their names, he checked a list, then smiled. He pressed a button, and the wall ahead of them slid back. Wow, Damian said softly. Nicolo had to agree. Wow summed it up. The first thing you noticed was the noise. Music, heavy on bass, went straight into your blood. Then you realized that the room youd walked into was huge. The designer had carefully left the exposed overhead pipes and old brick walls but everything elsethe lighting, the endless Lucite bar, the elevated dance floor and the musicwas dazzlingly modern. You could play American football in here, Damian murmured. Especially since the place comes equipped with so many cheerleaders. He grinned, and Nicolo grinned back at him. It was true. The room was filled with people, more than half of them women. Young. Stunning. Sexy. Faces recognizable from European and American magazine covers and movies. What an idiot hed been, letting what happened this afternoon get him worked up. Damian had it right. This was what he needed. Lights. Music. Women. This was the way to relax. Barbieri! Aristedes! Lucas was making his way through the crowd toward them. The men exchanged handshakes and then Lucas rolled his eyes and grabbed them both in a bear hug. Ugly as always, he said, raising his voice over the pulsating beat of the music, but not to worry. Ive told a bunch of lies about you both and made you sound so interesting that people are willing to meet you, despite your looks. The three of them grinned. Then Lucas pointed toward a suspended, transparent staircase. My tables up there, he shouted. On the mezzanine. Its quieterand the view is ptimo! He was right. The table overlooked the dance floor and the sound level dropped from deafening to ear-shattering. And the view was, indeed, excellent. What scenery, Damian said. He meant, of course, the women. Nicolo nodded in agreement. Hed already acknowledged that the scenery was spectacular. All those lithe, gyrating bodies. The lovely faces Was there a woman on the dance floor with eyes the color of violets? With hair the honey-gold of a tigress? Nicolo? Which do you prefer? Nicolo blinked. Lucas and Damian were looking at him, along with a girl in gold hot pants and a skimpy black tank top. To drink, Lucas said, with a little laugh. Whiskey? Champagne? The club special? Its a Mojito. You know, rum, lime juice Whiskey, Nicolo said, and told himself to stop being a fool and start having a good time. But that was a problem. It turned out you couldnt have a good time just by telling yourself to have one. You had to relax before you had fun, and now that the woman with the violet eyes had pushed her way into his head, he knew damned well fun wasnt going to happen. No matter how much he tried. He ate. He drank. He listened while Lucas and Damian caught up on old times. The three of them hadnt seen each other in months; there was a lot to talk about and he forced himself to join in the conversation. After a while, his thoughts drifted. To the woman. To how hed dealt with her. The more he thought, the angrier he became. At her. At himself. What kind of man let a woman make a fool of him? Nicolo? Another blink, this time at Damian, who was watching him through slightly narrowed eyes. You okay? Yes. Sure. I told you, itsits this meeting Monday, and Lucas snorted. My friend, youre as transparent as glass. Whats on your mind is a woman. No. It wasnt true. Well, yes. There was a woman on his mind but not in the way Lucas meant. There were no women in his life to think about. Hed ended an affair a month ago, and grazie a Dio that he had. The lady in question had been like so many others, beautiful and accommodating at first, then simply beautiful and boring. But then, that was in the nature of thingsor was it? Somehow, he couldnt envision the blonde with the violet eyes ever being accommodating or boring. She would always be a challenge. Any other woman, given the situation, would have accepted the apology hed offered. Hell, any other woman would have done more than that. He was always lucky with women. They liked him and he liked them. So, any other woman would have smiled and said it was nice of him to say it was his fault but, really, it was hers. And hed have understood her smile, returned one of his own and said, well, perhaps they might have a drink while they decided who owed whom an apology. Nicolo brought his bourbon on the rocks to his lips and took a long drink. Damn it, the woman was haunting him and for a reason that was insulting. Such insolence! Why had he tolerated it? Such audacity! And hed let her get away with it. His eyes narrowed. What shed needed was a real lesson in how a woman should behave. Not that pale excuse of a kiss but something she would have remembered, something that would have shaken her loose of that cold disdain. He should have dragged her against his body. Taken her mouth, parted her lips with his and filled her with his taste. Let her understand that she was female and he was male and despite the ridiculous conventions of this misbegotten century, what that meant was that he held supremacy when it came to things such as this. But he had done none of those things. And now, for all he knew, somewhere in this vast city she was laughing at him. At how easily shed cut him down to size. Laughing, perhaps, with her lover. A woman with a face like a madonnas would surely have a lover. Would he be a man she could command? Yes. Of course. And what a pity that was because what the lady needed was a lover whose touch would make her tremble. Whose kisses would melt her icy hauteur. Who would make love to her until she begged for mercy Barbieri! Nicolo forced the darkness away, looked at the expressions on his friends facesand realized that he had held his glass so tightly it had shattered. Whiskey puddled on the table. Merda, he growled, and dabbed furiously at the spreading pond of golden liquid with a napkin. Never mind that. Did you cut yourself? Had he? Nicolo checked. No. Not a scratch. He forced a laugh and held out his hand. See? Relax, Reyes. There wont be a lawsuit. But Lucas wasnt buying into the poor attempt at humor. Amigo, Im not the one who needs to relax. Youre wound tighter than a spring. Nicolo thought about denying it but what was the point? These men knew him too well. Youre right. I am, and Im sorry Im spoiling your evening. He pushed back his chair. The truth is, I cant keep my mind on things tonight, so Im going to head back to my hotel. I told you, that meeting Weve known you too long to fall for that. Tough negotiations dont stress you, Barbieri. You live for them. Laughing, Damian nudged Lucas in the ribs with his elbow. Its a woman. Admit it. Nicolo gave a deliberately careless shrug. Maybe if he made light of it Okay, he said, it is. But Ill get over it. Of course you will. Lucas leaned closer. And I know the quickest way to do it. Its like drinking, Nicolo. Remember, back in college? The hair of the dog cure after too much partying? You wake with a hangover, you get rid of it by taking a drink. Well, you have a woman on the brain, you cure that by Lucas, a soft voice purred, darling Lucas, here you are! Weve been looking everywhere. Five women had materialized beside the table. All stunning. All smiling as if theyd found the lost treasure of the Amazons. The hair of the dog, my man, Damian whispered, and Nicolo thought, Why not? Chairs were dragged over. Introductions were made. Champagne corks popped. After a few minutes, one of the womenher name was Vickiturned to Nicolo. Lucas tells me youre a royal Nicolo looked over her shoulder. Lucas grinned and winked. Lucas is a comedian, he said. Im famous, too. She giggled. Well, not yet but someday. Maybe youve seen me? Ive been in A list of plays. Or TV shows. Or something. He didnt know, didnt care, and stole a surreptitious glance at his watch. When could he get out of here without insulting the lady or putting a damper on the party? Not that she wasnt beautiful. And friendly. She smiled a lot. Put her hand on his arm. Asked him the questions a man likes to be asked. It was an old game, one hed played often. The outcome was always understood. And pleasant. Amazingly pleasant. He felt his blood tingle. Damian was right. Lucas, too. This was what he needed. A willing, beautiful woman. A game with a predictable ending. A nights pleasure. Wasnt it bad enough the woman with the violet eyes had made a fool of him once? Was he going to let her do it again by keeping him from what waited for him now? Nicolo pushed back his chair. Took Vickis hand. Dance with me. He led her down the steps to the dance floor. Salsa music blasted the air, its insistent beat almost as sexual as the moves of Vickis ripe body lightly brushing his. Yes. This was good. This was what he needed But it wasnt. It was the wrong body, teasing his. The wrong face, lifted to his and smiling. The wrong eyes, filled with heat and desire. Basta, he thought in disgust, and he put his arms around the woman and brought her tightly against him as the music segued into something slow and sexy. She settled close against him as if shed been waiting for the invitation. Her hair tickled his nose. It was stiff and smelled of hairspray. Those honeyed curls this afternoon had been soft and fragrant with rain. Its terribly noisy here, Vicki said, her breath warm against his ear. Why dont we find a quieter place? That was the next line. His, or in these days of supposed equality, it could be Why dont we find a quieter place? she whispered. Nicolo cleared his throat. You know, he said, I think thatsI think its An excellent idea. I think Ill have to take a rain check on that, he heard himself say. She looked as surprised as he felt but, damn it, he didnt want this woman. No substitutes, he thought as the music began to pound again, and the need, the desire hed been suppressing all these hours ignited and threatened to consume him. He knew what he wanted. What he needed. And there had to be a way, had to be something he could do to Nicolo caught his breath. He stopped dancing, let the other dancers and the music swirl around him. There she was! Honey-colored curls. Violet eyes. The woman who was driving him insane. No black suede coat. No hood. No boots. Instead she wore a clinging scrap of crimson silk that barely covered her body. Gold sandals, all straps and sky-high, needle-sharp heels. She was dancing, if you wanted to call it that. Moving in a mans arms. Breasts swaying. Hips rotating. Head up, eyes locked to the mans face, mouth turned up in a smile A smile she had denied him. Nicolo? Vicki, whatever her name was, said his name. Said something more and put her hand on his chest. He brushed it aside. Stepped away. Abandoned her in the middle of the crowded dance floor. The part of his brain that was of this century knew all that. Knew, too, that his response to the events of the afternoon might not be entirely rational. But the part that was as old, as savagely male, as time whispered, This is what I want. And Im going to have it. And Nicolo heard nothing else. The music had turned wild; the throbbing pulse matched the insistent thump of his blood, the beat of his heart. The fury eating inside him. Fate, always capricious, had decided to favor him tonight. The woman whod made a fool of him was here. Now, he could even the score. He shouldered his way through the crowd, eyes locked to his quarry. She was oblivious to him. Good, he thought grimly. He wanted to reach her before she had time to think. But halfway there, she suddenly stopped dancing. Her partner said something; she didnt answer. Instead she moved out of his arms and stood like a doe at the edge of a clearing, sensing the presence of a hungry predator. Later, Nicolo would wonder if it werent the whole world that had gone still and waited, waited, waited. A minute, an eternity, swept by. Then the blonde raised her head and looked directly at him. He let a tight smile curve his mouth. Whatever beat its wings within him must have been in that smile, because the color drained from her face. She took a step back. He thought, again, of the doe. Run, he thought. And, just as if shed read his mind, the woman with the violet eyes swung away from him and fled. Nicolo didnt hesitate. He went after her. CHAPTER THREE YOU COULDNT end up in the same place with the same man twice in one day. Not in a town the size of New York. At first, when she saw him, Aimee told herself it had to be some other tall, dark-haired guy. There were tons of dark-haired, good-looking men in the city. A second glance and that hope vanished. It was the overbearing, supermacho jerk whod kissed her. It had to be. The truth was, nobody else would be as All right. No other man could possibly be as easy on the eyes. He was despicablebut he was gorgeous. The last few minutes, shed feltWhat? A premonition? She didnt believe in any of that stuff, but how else to explain that tingle at her nape? That feeling that eyes were following her as she danced with Tom or Tim or, dear God, she couldnt even remember the name of the guy whod bought her a drink, then led her onto the dance floor. He was nice enough. Good-looking enough. And he was working hard at making an impression. And he wasnt the stranger from this afternoon. No way would Tom, or whoever he was, grab a woman and kiss her, look at her through icy deep-blue eyes in a way that would make the memory of him lodge itself in her brain. She hated men like the Neanderthal, no matter how hot-looking a Neanderthal he might be. So, yes, it was good that the guy dancing with her wasnt like thatWasnt it? Of course it was. Hed been coming on to her like crazy. And shed tried her best to respond. Smiled. Laughed. Gone onto the dance floor and did her best to lose herself in the music, working off her frustrations to its insistent beat the way shed have worked them off in the gym. And then, suddenly, shed felt a tingle, as if someone was watching her. Well, of course, someone was watching her! People danced, other people watched. Aimee had danced harder, throwing herself into the music with abandon, and the guy with her kept saying things like, Wow, youre good, baby, and Thats it, babe, way to go, as if he were cheering her on. Objectifying her, shed thought with detached clarityexcept, wasnt that part of the deal tonight? Shed come here to have fun, shed thought grimly. To pick up a man. She was going to have a good time. Except, she wasnt. She despised places like this. Not the club itself: it was, she had to admit, spectacular. It was what went with the place. The noise. The lights. The crowd. The desperate pickup lines. And this was not the time to turn into an anthropologist studying the natives. So shed agreed when Jen said it was absolutely fantastic, laughed at what she assumed were jokes, let a nice-looking guy buy her a margarita, tell her she was the most beautiful woman in the place and lead her to the dance floor. And tried not to cringe each time Ted or Tim or Tom called her baby. And worked really, really hard at pretending she was having fun when the truth was, she didnt belong here, didnt want to be here, certainly didnt want to go home with Ted-Tom-Tim or anybody else for a night of meaningless sex. Shed never treated sex casually. Never had a one-night stand. Never, not once. Why on earth had she thought shed want to now? Because, a sly voice inside her had whispered, you thought it just might make you forget the stranger. The one with the hard, beautiful face and the body that was all muscle. The one who kissed you as if he had the right, as if he could kiss you, do anything to you that he wanted. That you wanted. And that was when Aimee felt the tingling, looked aroundAnd saw him. The stranger from this afternoon. Watching her with what could only be fury in his eyes. He was angry? At her? That was crazy. She was the one who was angry. And angry wasnt the word. Shed been the one harassed by him. By his attitude. His arrogance. His unwanted kiss. His eyes met hers. Everything faded. The insistent throb of the music, the people around her, everything. Aimee stopped dancing. It was all she could do not to run. The look in his eyes terrified herbut the slow heat spreading through her veins terrified her even more. She took a long, deep breath. Or tried to. For some reason, she couldnt seem to get any air into her lungs. Suddenly the rage in his expression changed. Something else glittered in his dark blue eyes. Something male that she despised. The innate male determination to dominate. To dominate, in bed and out. With breathtaking swiftness, she felt a rush of heat sweep through her. Her nipples tightened; a honeyed warmth spread low in her belly. No, she thought frantically, no! Shed never want someone like him to put his hands on her. His mouth on her. To take her, hard and fast, again and again until she collapsed in his arms. He started toward her, heedless of the people in his way, everything about him focused, with hot intensity, on her. And she turned and ran. She went through the crowd blindly, banging into people, ignoring their indignant protests. Her heart was racing. God, oh God, oh God! He was the hunter. She was his prey. A sob rose in her throat and, just in time, she spotted the flashing neon sign that marked one of the clubs unisex bathrooms. Jen had dragged her into it earlier. Doesnt look like a bathroom at all, Jen had bubbled. Right now, it looked like a sanctuary. Aimee pulled open the door. Slammed it after her. Started to turn the lock Bang! The door flew open and the man burst into the room. She shrieked and fell back, reached behind her to the vanity. Wrapped her hand around a heavy bottle of something. Hand lotion. Body oil. Who gave a damn what it was? It was a weapon. That was what counted. Dont, she said. Her voice shook. Was that the reason for the little smile that began at the corner of his mouth? Get out of here! Do you hear me? Go away or Ill scream. He laughed. She couldnt blame him. There wasnt a chance in the world anyone would hear her. You wouldnt hear a siren above the music. It was muted here, but it still filled the room like the beat of a giant heart. She raised the bottle over her head. One step, she panted, just one, and Ill smash you with this! He laughed. You already tried that, remember? Im not kidding! Youyou unlock that door and get the hell out of here or so help me He started toward her. She let fly with the bottle but he dodged and it shattered against the wall. Listen to me. Her voice trembled; she hated herself for it but she knew damned well there was nothing she could do to prevent it. This is a terrible mistake. You wontyou wont get away with At first, he said, his tone almost conversational, I thought, Well, that is just the way she deals with men. Shed noticed his accent this afternoon. You couldnt miss that husky, sexy quality to his voice. It seemed more obvious now, his pronunciation more careful. I told myself it was not important. Aimee swallowed. Look, what happened this afternoon Still, he said, in that same easy way, as if he were explaining the days news to a friend, still, I admit, it bothered me. That a woman should be so impolite. So downright rude. But I put it out of my head. I didnt do anything! It wasit was just something that happened. Just something that happened. He nodded. Yes, thats an excellent way to put it. In fact, that is exactly the conclusion I reached. He was inches away from her now, so close that she had to tilt her head up to see his eyes. Even in her heels, he was much taller than she. And, God, much bigger. But then I saw you, here. You mean, you followed me here! You give yourself too much importance, cara. Do you really think I have nothing better to do than to spend my time following you? A little muscle was ticking in his cheek. I came here with friends. To enjoy the evening. He paused. And, it would seem, so did you. Yes. Andand my date will be looking for Your date didnt move a finger to prevent you from abandoning him. Or to keep me from going after you. He paused, and she saw his eyes darken. I noticed that you treated your gentleman friend differently than you treated me. I dont know what you mean. Cara. Please, dont try my patience. You laughed with him. Smiled when he spoke to you. Of course. I mean, I know him Really? Whats his name? Ted, Aimee said quickly. No. It is not. It had been a gamble, but a good one. Nicolo watched as the woman worried her bottom lip. Hed guessed right. She had no idea who shed been dancing with. Shed picked the man up. For many of its patrons, that was the purpose of a place like this. Her business, of course. That was what hed told himself, when he first saw her with the man. But hed watched as she smiled. Flirted. Shook her hips, her breasts. Practiced the fine art of seduction. For another man. Not for him. Not for him, hed thought, and suddenly hed known that confronting her, kissing her, would not be enough. He wanted her. It didnt make sense but it didnt have to. His body, his blood, knew what he needed. And what he needed was this beautiful, condescending stranger dancing with him Dancing in his bed. Slowly he reached out, laced one finger under the thin strap of her red dress and tugged. She stumbled toward him, arms raised, hands balled into fists. He caught her wrists in one hand. Dont struggle, he said in a low voice. It will only make things worse. Please. Her voice trembled. Please, dont do this. I told you this afternoon, you lack manners, cara. Let me go! Damn you The next time something happens, as you called it, between you and a man, you will know how to respond. If youre after an apology And if I were, would you finally offer one? She was terrified; he could see it in her face, feel it in the trembling of her body. Her gaze locked on his, and he felt a rush of disappointment. She was desperate, desperate enough so she was, in fact, going to apologize. And then, as a civilized man, hed have to let her go Wrong. Her chin lifted; terrified or not, her eyes blazed with defiance. Only a barbarian would think that taking a woman by force is the way to get even for damage to his ego. Is that what you think? That Im going to rape you? The muscle flickered in his jaw again; he cupped her face with his free hand and held it steady. You know better. His voice was low and husky. I saw the way you looked at me a few minutes ago. Color stained her cheeks. I dont know what you Yes, he said, you damned well do. His head lowered to hers, and he kissed her. His mouth was hard. Hungry. Hot against hers. Aimee jerked against the restraint of his hand, tried to twist her face away but he wouldnt permit it. Instead he brought her closer, crushing her tightly against him so that she could feel the strength of him, the power. The thrust of his straining erection. A whimper rose in her throat. Stop, she said, against his mouth, but he went on kissing her, his fingers sliding into her hair, twisting the curls around his hand, backing her against the wall so that now she was pressed against him from breast to groin. Kiss me back, he said in a thick whisper. No, she told herself frantically. She wouldnt. She wouldnt. She wouldnt Aimee gave a strangled cry, rose to him and opened her mouth against his. He groaned. Let go of her wrists and threw his arm around her hips, lifting her against him. His tongue teased her lips, slipped between them and she tasted his hunger, his need, his rampant masculinity. Say it, he growled against her mouth. Tell me what you want. What youve wanted ever since this afternoon. Blind to logic, to reason, blind to anything but the feel of him, the scent of him, Aimee gave up lying. You, she whispered. Only you. All day. All evening. I couldnt think of anything else, couldnt get you out of my head He cupped her face in his hands. Kissed her, deeply. Thrust his leg between hers and she moaned at the feel of it against the tender flesh between her thighs. She moved against him. Moved again, but it wasnt enough, wasnt enough She moaned. The sound damned near sent Nicolo over the edge. The taste of her was exquisite. She was strawberries and cream, spring rain and summer sun. She was everything a man could imagine a woman might be, if only in a dream. He lifted her from the floor. Her arms rose; she wound them around his neck. Yes, he said, and he grasped her slender thighs and brought them around his hips. He thought of taking her to his hotel. To her apartment. To a place where he could undress her, touch her, watch her eyes as he entered her. But not now. Now, he needed this. Needed her. Needed to bury himself in her, needed it more than his next breath. Locked in a dance as old as time, mouths fused in mutual hunger, Nicolo carried Aimee to the marble vanity. Sat her on its edge. Fumbled between them. Unzipped. Freed himself. Put his hand between her thighs, groaning as he felt the wet heat of her against his fingers, and tore aside the scrap of silk that kept her from him. Look at me, he commanded. She did, fixing those incredible violet eyes on his face. Yes, she said, and he thrust forward, sank into her, felt her close around him. She cried out instantly; he felt the pulse of her muscles as she came and then he exploded within her, came in a rush of almost unbearable ecstasy. She trembled. Then she gave a little sob and dropped her head on his shoulder. Nicolo put his arms around her. Stroked her silken hair. Whispered to her, his native language soft on his tongue while he tried to figure out what in hell had just happened. This was not the first time hed had quick, hot sex. It was not the first time hed had sex in the hidden heart of a public place. Both could be exciting. The truth was, sex was always exciting. But this, what had just happenedHed never experienced anything like it. He didnt even know this womans name. He hadnt used a condom. Madre del dio, was he losing his mind? And then she sighed. Her breath tickled his throat. She lifted her head and looked at him, her eyes filled with uncertainty, her mouth gently swollen from his kisses, and Nicolo forgot everything but the soft, sweet feel of her mouth, her arms, her thighs. I dontI dont know what happened. Her voice was shaky, her face white except for two spots of color high on her cheeks. I neverGod, I never No. Nor have I. She started to speak again and he knew what she would say, that this was wrong, that he had to let her go. He knew of only one way to keep her from saying those words. He kissed her. Gently at first but thenthen, the fierce wave of desire swept over him. And over her. He felt her swift intake of breath, the whispered plea against his lips, and suddenly he was deep inside her again, rocking against her, swallowing her cries, coming when she came and knowing that it still wasnt enough, that he needed more. Someone pounded on the locked door. The woman in his arms blanched. Its all right, he whispered, but she shook her head. No. Someones outside. Theyll see He brushed his lips over hers. Then he set her on her feet and did what needed to be done to make himself presentable. She did the same, but he saw that her hands were shaking. Cara. Dont be Hey, you gonna be in there all night? Nicolo looked down into the face of the woman hed just made love to. Its time we introduced ourselves, he said softly. My name is She put her palm over his mouth. No. No names. This wasit was only a dream. He caught her hand, pressed his lips to it, then closed her fingers over the kiss. A dream. Si. And there is no need for the dream to end so soon. No. I cant. I We can, he said fiercely. We can do anything, if this is a dream. She shook her head but he drew her into his arms and kissed her, telling her without words how it could be between them, how it would be when they had all the time and privacy they needed. Her lips softened. Clung to his. She sighed, and he cupped her face with his hands. Come with me, he whispered. She shook her head again; he kissed her again. Is there another man? No, she said quickly. But Were adults, cara. Both of us are free. Come with me. Be with me tonight. He kissed her and the world spun around them. Then he lifted his head and looked down into her eyes. Yes, she said softly. Nicolo felt his heart soar. He encircled her waist with his arm, drew her against him, led her to the door and unlocked it. A man was waiting outside. Its about time. I mean, how long did you His gaze fell on Aimee and he raised his eyebrows. Oh. I get it. Hey, no problem. I had a babe like this with me, Id Watch your mouth, Nicolo said, his voice cold and flat. The mans face went pale. He stepped out of their way. And Aimee thought, What am I doing? Shed just had sex with a stranger. A stranger she knew nothing about, except that he could be hard and cold and terrifying. Her nameless lover drew her close. Dont think, he said, as if hed read her mind. Not tonight. She looked up at him, into those blue eyes that could go from winter ice to summer sun. Remembered the feel of his hands on her. The feel of him in her, and let the last vestige of sanity slip away. There was a taxi at the curb. It took them uptown, to a hotel on the park. He had a suite. It was huge. Luxurious. Was money a good character reference? she thought, and would have laughed but he was taking her into his arms, slipping the straps of her dress from her shoulders. Cupping her breasts, tasting them, ohgod, ohgod, ohgod The hours after that were a blur of excitement. Of whispers and sighs and explorations. Aimee lost herself in a sea of sensation. And shot awake in the gray hours before dawn, suddenly aware that she was wrapped in the embrace of a man she didnt know. A hot tide of shame engulfed her. Trembling, she disentangled herself from the possessive curve of his arm. Dressed in the dark, slipped from the sumptuous suite and sneaked down the service staircase because the thought of facing the elevator operator made her feel ill. Moments later, Nicolo came awake and reached for his lover. The bed, the sitting room, the bathroom were empty. He cursed, pulled on trousers and shirt, hurried out into the corridor, but she was gone. He rang for the elevator. No, the operator said, he hadnt taken anyone down to the lobby. He went to the reception desk, demanded to know if the clerk had seen a woman with honey-blond hair and violet eyes. The answer there was the same. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39919466&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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