Authors: Ellen Wolf
Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Wolf
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Ellen Wolf
The characters and events described in this work are entirely fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or deceased, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
She was there. Close enough for him to see the sinuous curves of her body and hear the pearly laughter that grated along his nerve endings like sandpaper.
Her champagne-colored dress almost glowed in the light of the chandeliers, the generous cut of the bodice leaving little to the imagination. His eyes traveled over her golden curls down to the perfectly made-up face with huge eyes and lips that could have carried just a little less lipstick. She was absolutely perfect in a Marilyn Monroe kind of way, he thought coldly. Seductive, feminine, and tempting, she had a rather large circle of admirers hanging on to every word that fell from her red-painted mouth. She hadn’t noticed him yet—nothing that wouldn’t be fixed in the moments to come.
He was patient, a strange sense of calm descending upon him. Fate had offered this unexpected gift, and he wasn’t going to waste it. Still, to rush was never a good option, especially since his brain had already formed a crystal-clear plan that required time and patience.
James, it’s so great to see you again. You should definitely stay in touch more. Still busy running between continents?’
An older gentleman with a booming voice was obstructing his view, and he had to muster all his self-control not to push the man aside with one impatient move. His fingers were itching to do exactly that as he tried to look past him to the woman who had captured his attention the moment he had heard her name.
He managed to say something equally polite and non-committal, excusing himself as soon as it was possible. Thank God, the party was rather large, the sheer volume of guests working to his advantage.
Soon he was weaving his way through the crowd, his eyes focused on the pale golden dress across the room. There was no hesitation in his strong, purposeful stride as he closed the distance with a few long steps. The gods were on his side, he thought as the little gathering parted at exactly the right moment, revealing the woman in its middle. He couldn’t have asked for a better opening. Their eyes met across the space, and he smiled at her, his cold, speculative expression brushed aside with what he hoped was convincing warmth.
It must have worked, because she smiled back, her blue eyes widening as she stared at him. He knew he wasn’t bad looking. Enough women had been proving it to him ever since he had shown any interest in the opposite sex. Not that it had mattered up to this point. At the moment, however, he was grateful for the good looks he had inherited from both his parents. It would make it easier, he thought, unleashing another lethal smile at the slim, blond goddess who seemed to have forgotten how to breathe.
With two last steps he was standing right in front of her, his eyes intent on her lovely, flushed face.
I don’t think we’ve met before.’
His mouth slanted into a grin that found response in the trembling smile that stretched her sensuous lips. She was too easy, he thought with disdain. The hunter deep inside him was disappointed at how effortless this had proved to be.
She was a flirt, of course. He had seen it in those few moments when he watched her from a distance. He knew she had a boyfriend, and for a moment he worried the guy might be around. But by now he was quite certain that hers was a solo appearance, her seductive glances brushing more than one man in the room. She had definitely enjoyed the attention and admiration from her male companions, blissfully unaware of numerous sour looks from the other women at the party. Or, he rather suspected, she was perfectly aware of them, enjoying every single little misery she was causing.
I saw you from across the room and just couldn’t resist coming to introduce myself properly,’ he continued, his voice low and intent. His eyes caressed her pale face and came to rest on her half-open mouth with heat that made her lips tremble.
With anyone else, he wouldn’t have dared to be so forward, but he had a pretty good idea that she wouldn’t mind it one bit. If anything, the thought of being an object of his masculine desire could only pull her in a little more. He reached out and took her hand, his fingers caressing the soft flesh of her palm. He was right, he thought with satisfaction as he felt her shiver in response, her cheeks reddening.
Oh, that’s the problem with these huge charity events, isn’t it?’ she said, her voice husky. ‘It’s hard to meet everyone.’
I knew I had to meet you, though.’ He smiled, his fingers pressing harder until he could feel her erratic pulse. ‘I’m James McMaster, by the way. This party was a last moment change of plans, but now I think it was worth it.’
She didn’t need to know that she was the reason for his sudden change of heart, that it was her name that caught his attention as he felt wave upon wave of fury wash over him with blistering heat. He thought that he was stronger, more resilient and capable of keeping the past where it belonged. Wasn’t that what he had been doing all these years, carefully avoiding the urge to dwell upon the events from twelve years ago?
Still, all it had taken was her name printed in the charity brochure in fine black print. Suddenly, the dams of his self-control had burst, and the familiar bitter taste of anger blazed inside him as if it were just yesterday that his life changed forever.
The reason for it all was standing here with him, her perfectly manicured little hand resting in his with familiarity that he found unbearable, but that seemed to thrill her.
I’m Sophie.’ She smiled at him coquettishly, her long eyelashes fluttering like wings of a butterfly. ‘Sophie Marrows, from the Italia Restaurant. We own it, my family and I.’
He had to remind himself to act ignorant. She mustn’t know that ever since he realized he would meet her at the party, he had done very thorough research on all things connected to her and her family.
She kept talking about their catering the charity event, her presence PR for their business. He listened half-heartedly, forcing himself to appear interested.
For one fleeting moment, he wondered about her sister, who appeared to be an equal partner in the family’s undertaking. The forbidden image of a slim, dark-haired girl with huge eyes and a sad mouth rose before his mind, refusing to be banished. He didn’t want to remember, he thought grimly, his anger directed at his foolish heart. She was in the past, buried with all the other emotions he had tried so hard to forget.
He looked at Sophie, making an inhuman effort to dismiss everything that threatened the task at hand. She was here, the woman who was responsible for so much of the pain and destruction caused to the people he cared for the most. She was his priority, he reminded himself, adrenaline running through his veins.
Payback time had arrived. Nothing and no one could derail him from his quest to finally close the door on the worst chapter of his life. Punishing the guilty might bring him some closure and banish the demons, even though it wouldn’t bring back the victim of her crimes.
He heard her say something, her laughter light and holding just the right amount of sexual promise. He let his fingers travel up her palm to the sensitive skin of her inner wrist, tracing the fine net of bluish veins visible under her delicate skin. He could just as well be touching a statue, he thought bitterly, completely unaffected by her beauty and sex appeal.
I hope that since we’ve managed to find each other here, it’s just the beginning,’ he said seductively, his eyes scorching. ‘Say yes, Sophie. Please?’
He saw her nod and knew he had succeeded. A sense of triumph made him light-headed, but he had no time to indulge in self-congratulations. There was work to be done, and he was ready. Ready to deal with Sophie and the rest of her family.
The game had just begun.
Emily, you should have seen him. He was absolutely gorgeous, and I swear, my heart almost stopped when he asked me out.’
Tall, blond, and perfectly made up, Sophie Marrows gave her stepsister a look of excitement inconsistent with her usual cool, reserved demeanor. ‘He had to ask me twice.’
She giggled, and her pouty red lips stretched into a girlish smile that transformed her haughty face.
She looked almost shy, Emily thought, ‘almost’ being the operative word.
Emily tried hard to appear interested, a difficult feat as she balanced on the top rung of a stepladder, fastening the last few letters of a welcome sign over the entrance to the restaurant’s main room. Her eyelids felt gritty after a long day of work, and her arms ached from trying to reach high enough without losing her balance. Hanging signs wasn’t her usual job.
She was responsible for the catering part of the business, her talent for creating breathtakingly beautiful and palatable dishes something the ever-growing circle of customers appreciated most. Sophie dealt with the business promotion and advertising, her years of experience as a model useful when attending parties and get-togethers. Emily didn’t envy her stepsister at all. Naturally shy, she cringed at the sheer idea of mingling with as many people as Sophie’s busy schedule effortlessly accommodated.
Her feet carefully found their way down the treacherous path to the black and white marble floor, and she stepped back to survey her work. The sign looked all right. They were preparing the venue for the next day’s brunch, a surprise birthday celebration for their mother, something they had been planning for the past two weeks.
Or, at least
had been, she thought resentfully, recalling Sophie’s vague excuses for her disappearances. Mrs. Marrows, Sophie’s mom and Emily’s stepmother for the last fifteen years, was returning from an extended hospital stay after a successful battle with yet another bout of depression. As it happened to be almost exactly on the date of her fiftieth birthday, celebrating the occasion with her family and friends seemed appropriate. After consulting her doctor and therapist, the sisters had received the green light to proceed, their worries of triggering another breakdown put to rest by both experts.
Their restaurant wasn’t the most posh or exclusive, by any means. The limited seating and a kitchen in desperate need of an upgrade kept it just at the middle range of desired destinations for lovers of Mediterranean cuisine. Emily couldn’t shake the feeling that they were barely more than impostors. The cheerful sign praising the excellent menu still made her cringe five years after they had decided to change from typical English fare.
The restaurant had been in her family for generations. Both her grandfather and father had been proud of its simple, yet whimsical, charm that reminded steady guests of days gone by. The low white and black building with thick oak beams and tables polished by countless elbows had seen the drama of both the thirties and the war and had successfully escaped the threat of modernization and progress. People liked it and flocked to it every evening.
Some of her earliest memories were of sitting on the counter, watching her father polish the already sparkly glasses. He loved the place with all his heart, and in the restaurant was where she would tell him about her joys and worries as a schoolgirl.
The restaurant was also where she learned, at the age of ten, that her mother had been killed in a senseless accident, a drunk driver cutting short her young life. Stunned and unable to move, Emily had been grateful for the semidarkness that allowed her to hide her tears as she watched her father struggle for composure and almost fail.