She needed money. He needed a wife. But they each got more than they bargained for in this passionate cat-and-mouse game.

Deadly threats from a loan shark to pay back a debt her late father incurred sends Nia Sylk on a desperate search for Massimo Andretti, the man she blames for both her predicament and her father's death. Determined to make him pay, Nia concocts a tempting proposal she hopes Massimo will find hard to refuse.

Italian playboy Massimo Andretti must marry before his 34th birthday and produce an heir within a year if he wants to keep his billion-dollar inheritance. So when Nia Sylk, a beautiful school teacher offers him her virginity in exchange for four million dollars, Massimo begins to hatch his own devious plan: marry the brazen bella donna to fulfill the terms of his father’s will, and satisfy his own lustful indulgences in the process.

Will Nia be able to escape with Massimo’s millions in tow, or does this infamous playboy have enough charm and passion to derail her plans?

The Playboy's Fugitive Bride (Billionaire Brides of Granite Falls #3)

Chapter 1

He was the epitome of masculinity as he strolled through the door of the ski cabin, bringing a draft of New England’s frigid air with him. The rough-hewn floor groaned under his weight, and his hard muscles rippled beneath his skin-tight ski outfit as his sturdy legs transported his six-foot, three-inch frame across the room. He came to a stop in front of a wood stove, pulled off his mittens, and held large hands toward the roaring flames. 

Nia’s eyes glowed with a mixture of conflicting emotions as she gaped at the notorious Italian playboy—Massimo Luciano Andretti, sole heir to Andretti Industries, one of the largest textile manufacturers in the world.

With his smooth olive complexion, black, wavy, shoulder-length hair, a wide sensuous mouth, and eyes as blue as the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny day, Massimo was, by far, the sexiest exhibit in the billionaire bachelors’ storefront window. No woman he set his sights on was safe. He captured them, pampered them, bedded them, then wiped his mouth and moved on to the next willing victim like an impartial judge at a pie-baking contest.

But Massimo’s irresistible sex appeal wasn’t the reason Nia had tracked him down to the resort mountain town of Granite Falls, New Hampshire. She had a six-year-old score to settle with the bastard who’d caused her father’s death, and just recently placed the lives of her younger brother and herself in danger.  

On his dying bed, her father had made her promise to forget about Massimo Andretti and to concentrate on taking care of herself and Aaron. He’d also made her promise that she would move as far away from Maine as possible. Nia had kept her promises and gone on with her life as best she could, even though she had never been able to put Massimo Andretti completely out of her mind since she’d first seen him six years ago.

Aaron had grown into a responsible young man and didn’t need her protection from Maine’s child welfare system anymore. He was a high school senior, and had recently received a full scholarship in engineering from MIT. Nia was so proud of him, and grateful that she’d had a chance to give him as normal a life as possible.

It wasn’t easy, and many times she’d prayed for someone to come along and take the burden of parenthood away from her. But no one had come. She was all Aaron had, and he was all she had. Together, they’d survived a difficult past and had been looking forward to a better future.

But the past had a way of raiding a girl’s present and stealing her future.

It showed up in the form of a letter from a loan shark named Eddie. Included in the letter was a copy of a six-year-old promissory note that bore her father’s signature. Eddie wanted his money—interest, penalties, and late fees included. It was then Nia understood why her father had instructed her to get as far away from Maine as she could. Seemed she hadn’t gone far enough.  She’d definitely picked the wrong state in which to start fresh and hide from her past.

Nia had been puzzled as to how Eddie had tracked her down, especially when she’d been so careful to cover her tracks. She’d simply ignored it, hoping he would think she wasn’t who he thought she was. But when a second letter arrived with a photo of Aaron’s high school football team with his face circled, and another of him walking home from school that very week, Nia knew she was in real trouble. In the note, Eddie had promised that Aaron would be beaten to death in front of her, and then he would take his sweet time with her before slicing her throat. She had two months to produce the money.

She should have listened to her gut when it warned her not to let Aaron tryout for the football team, but how could she deny him that one little pleasure in his young pitiful life?  He’d been denied so much, and she couldn’t take that away from him, too. She never imagined that their high school would win the national championship and that their names and faces would be plastered all over the local news. The problem was that Aaron was the spitting image of their father.  There was no denying who he was.

Nia quivered from the memories of reading that letter. There was no way she could come up with a million dollars—ever—much less in two months. Eddie was neither impressed nor pacified with the small installments she’d offered him, and had even suggested that she was a pretty little thing who could work it off in trade for him.

In her desperation, Nia’s thoughts had gone to one man—Massimo Andretti. His actions, or lack of them, had created the problem. It was only fair that he fix it. She’d thought of writing to him, but recalling her father’s numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact him six years ago, she’d decided it was a waste of time.

Luckily for her, the delivery of the second letter coincided with the breakup of Massimo’s six-month engagement to a Boston heiress. Nia wasn’t surprised when it fell apart.  Massimo was an Andretti, and five months into the engagement, rumors of an affair began flying. Then, just two weeks ago, the bride-to-be canceled the wedding. Infidelity was synonymous with Andretti men. Massimo was merely proving he was hewn from the same adulterous piece of granite.

He hopped beds as frequently as he hopped the globe, which was pretty often, seeing he owned companies on every continent. His five-month engagement to the heiress was the longest relationship he’d ever had. He never denied the charges of infidelity, and he didn’t even seem shaken up over the breakup. As far as the world knew, he hadn’t yet zeroed in on his next catch. But with Massimo, one never knew.

The thought of associating herself with such an unscrupulous man made Nia sick to her stomach.  But she had no choice. Her father owed Eddie. Massimo owed her. His broken promises had destroyed her family. This debt was not hers. It was Massimo’s. And it was time he paid it.

Nia rubbed her palms along her arms and curled her fingers into the soft material of her cashmere sweater. Her new wardrobe and travel expenses had cost several thousand dollars, not to mention the high interest on her credit cards, but she couldn’t approach Massimo looking like an underpaid schoolteacher. He was a man who appreciated classy women. She’d never seen a shabby-looking love interest on his arm.

A rush of uncertainly fluttered in her belly. What if Massimo didn’t take her bait? What if he decided she wasn’t worth the trouble? There was no doubt in her mind that Eddie would keep his promise to kill her and her brother if she failed to pay him in two months.

The day after she’d gotten the second letter, Nia had packed Aaron off to the Caribbean to stay with her friend who’d moved back there. She didn’t want Eddie getting any ideas that he could kidnap and hold him as collateral until she paid the debt. Besides, she couldn’t leave him in New York by himself, and she couldn’t bring him to Granite Falls on her clandestine mission, either.

She’d never lied to Aaron about anything, but she wasn’t about to lay this kind of burden on him, so she’d simply told him that it was crucial he left the country. He wasn’t happy about the disruption in his senior year, but he’d grown to trust her over the years and knew that she would only ask him to do something if it was vitally important. Since his high school was a superb prototype of twenty-first-century learning, he was able to carry on his studies via the Internet and satellite. Thank God for technology.

She’d been tempted to follow him across the ocean and forget about Massimo Andretti, but Eddie had found them once. He could find them again. This time, there would be no warning.  He would just kill Aaron, use her up, and then kill her, too.

Nia’s heart began to race as she watched Massimo slide his mittens back on. He was warm now and ready to go back out on the trail. Maybe she should let him go before her plan blew up in her face. Massimo Andretti could turn out to be far more dangerous than Eddie if he discovered she was about to swindle him.

No. She shook her head. There was no room for doubts and fears. Massimo was the only way to keep her and Aaron alive. She just had to convince this Andretti hound that she was his next willing victim. 

Girding herself with resolve, Nia slid the metal strap of her knockoff Kate Spade purse over her shoulder and glided from the bench. Her legs felt like worn-out elastic as she covered the short distance to Massimo’s side. “Beautiful day for skiing, isn’t it?” she said, smiling up at him.

His head swung lazily to the other side. His thick long lashes lifted and his deep-blue gaze patrolled her face. “Then why aren’t you out on the trails?”

Nia breathed through the sensual tremor that rocked her body. She never knew being this close to a man could be so unnerving, even one who presented a chilling aura. She forced her confused emotions into order and placidly said, “I enjoy watching other people.”

His wide mouth pulled into a slight smile as his gaze moved slowly down the length of her then back up again. “Is that the way you get your kicks, watching other people?”

“It depends on what I’m watching them do.” She held his hard gaze even as the provocative question and his deep voice made her insides quiver.

Interesting, Massimo thought as he surveyed the young woman with straight dark hair tumbling past her shoulders to the soft curve of her back. He’d felt an instant attraction towards her from the moment he walked into the cabin and spotted her sitting in the corner. If it weren’t for the sticky matter of his marriage of convenience in less than a week, he would have joined her at the booth and been charming his way between her shapely thighs already.

He groaned inwardly as his eyes feasted on the slender brown-skinned kitten gazing up at him through brown, almond-shaped eyes. She was wearing black leather boots, a red cashmere sweater that accentuated her jutting breast, and body-hugging jeans that seductively emphasized her narrow waist, just-right hips, and a firm round derriere that would fit nicely in his palms.  She clearly hadn’t come to the mountain to ski.

He forced his gaze back to her pear-shaped face and full rosy lips, structuring a mouth so wide, visions of her kissing specific erogenous parts of his body sent a licentious need coursing through him. She was sinfully sexy in an unsettling innocent way. He hadn’t been with a woman in weeks, and just looking at her was pushing him close to the edge of his restraint.

As he continued to gaze into her eyes, a disturbing familiarity washed over Massimo. He’d seen those eyes before—sweet and radiant, with a bright rim around the pupils and a combination of gold and lighter brown shades within the irises. She was definitely not a one-night fling—even in his most inebriated state, he would have remembered enjoying such an enticing creature.

So, where had he seen those eyes before? “Do I know you? Have we met?” he asked, pulling his mittens from his hands and pushing them into his pockets.

She dropped her gaze and shook her head. “No, but I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time, Mr. Andretti.  What woman doesn’t?” She chuckled softly and tucked a handful of hair behind her ears with slender French-tipped fingers.

That mundane gesture and the way her lips unfolded like a rose glistering with morning dew caused a deep burning in the lowest regions of Massimo’s belly. “I’m flattered, Miss—”

“Sylk.  Nia Sylk.”

As Massimo took the delicate hand she extended, he quivered at the thought of all that dark, fine, silk wrapped around him. “A very apropos name. Silk happens to be my favorite fabric. So soft and smooth and slick to the touch,” he murmured, slowly caressing the back of her hand with his fingers.

“This Sylk is spelled with a Y,” she said, pulling away from his grasp.

“Just as a rose by any other name is still a rose, silk is silk, whether it’s spelled with an I or a Y.” 

Noting the flash of embarrassment that shrouded her face, Massimo knew he was right about her innocence. No sexually experienced woman would blush like that at such a mild overtone. Enough with the games, he thought with a hint of irritation. No need to toy with the prey since he couldn’t gobble her up once he caught her. “To what do I owe the honor of your beautiful acquaintance, Miss Sylk?”

Nia’s skin prickled with warm sensations that had nothing to do with the heat from the fire, but from his touch, his voice, and his overwhelming proximity. No wonder women willingly succumbed to him. The man was potent. Lethal. He knew his debilitating effect on the opposite sex and he took great satisfaction in exercising it.

She looked anxiously around the cabin. The two teenage boys who’d been trying on boots a few minutes ago had left, and the woman behind the rental counter was still engrossed in her sweater-knitting project. The place was deserted, not the kind of ski lodge that attracted many people. Luckily for her, it was the right time and place to cast her bait into the lake. Imposing an iron control on her nerves, Nia said in a low, steady voice, “I want to be your lover.”

His eyes deepened to a cobalt blue. “You’re definitely not shy, Miss Sylk. A properly raised woman would wait for a man to pursue her.” 

“Being properly raised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go after what you want.”

“Bold and beautiful. An intriguing combination.” His eyes flinched like indigo lightning across a lake. “And what makes you think I would want you, Miss Sylk? Women who go around offering themselves to strange men don’t interest me. I chase the women I want, not the other way around. You’re taking all the fun out of the game,” he added with a mocking downward turn of his mouth.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Nia said, determined not to let his lack of interest deter her. Or was he just pretending? After all, he was a hound, and hounds never passed up opportunities.

“And I’m supposed to believe you because—”

“I’m a virgin.”

Massimo bounced that unexpected bit of information around in his head. He’d had one virgin in his lifetime, and the experience had been so horrible, he’d sworn off them. But as he gazed into the seductive eyes of Miss Nia Sylk, the very thought of deflowering her, exploring the untouched landscape of her enticing little body made his cock throb. He was much more skillful now, and he was sure the experience would be pleasurable for both of them.

But he was getting married in five days.

Massimo stroked his lower lip with the pad of his thumb as he felt the familiar ache in his groin. If she glanced down, Miss Sylk would know exactly what he wished to do with her. He was never one to hide his desire for a woman. He wasn’t into playing games. Games were for the inexperienced, the uncertain, and the cunning. And something told him that this inexperienced little kitten had a cunning game all plotted out with a trap at the end of her ball of yarn—just for him.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Well, she wasn’t an enemy, yet, but she just might become one when she found herself tangled up in her own ball of yarn. He’d be a fool to walk away without knowing why she’d approached him with such an indelicate offer.

For all he knew, Nia could be a Trojan horse his bastard half brother, Galen, had sent to keep him from fulfilling the requirements in his father’s will. Damn his father for putting him in this situation!

It was just payback for his refusing to marry the innocent, young girl his father thought was a suitable match, ten years ago. Massimo had informed his father that he had no intentions of ever marrying any woman. He had no desire to break an innocent girl’s heart like his father had broken his mother’s—like all Andretti men were destined to do.

Luciano had gotten his revenge by stating in his will that if Massimo wanted to inherit Andretti Industries, he must marry on or before his thirty-fourth birthday and produce an heir within a year. Moreover, he had to remain faithfully married for three years or Andretti Industries would go to Galen. The old geezer couldn’t control Massimo from his desk, so he figured he’d do it from his grave.

Massimo had had no idea of Galen’s existence until the reading of his father’s will, six years ago. The shocking information had sent Massimo into a psychological decline and begun a series of incidents that had almost cost him his life.  But he’d recovered, and he was ready to fight anyone who got in the way of his goal.

And ‘anyone’ included Miss Nia Sylk, no matter how alluring she was.

“Hello?”

Massimo shook off the odious memories and surveyed the uninvited intrusion into his world.  “So, you’re a virgin.  What’s the big deal about virgins?”

What’s the big deal?  Nia balked at his cavalier response. He’d probably had more than his fair share of virgins. “I thought virgins were every man’s fantasy, Mr. Andretti. I’ve heard that the pleasure of a virginal conquest for a man is equivalent to breaking in a wild horse.  Merely a matter of triumph.”

His thick eyebrows arched.  “And where specifically did you hear that?”

I have no idea, Nia thought of the lame analogy. Seriously? Momentarily speechless, Nia could do nothing but stare at him. His apparent enjoyment of her inability to deliver a witty response grated on her already sensitive nerves. You’re doing this for Aaron. You have to play along. There’s no room for failure. She took a deliberate step backward, hoping her desperation wasn’t too obvious. “Since you’re not interested, I’ll just—”

“How old are you, Miss Sylk?”

“Old enough to know what I want. I’m ready to be a woman in every sense of the word and I want you—a real man, to teach me, Mr. Andretti.”

“Let me see some ID.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Since I don’t know you, I can’t very well answer that question fairly. Your hesitation suggests you may have something to hide. Perhaps your name isn’t even Nia Sylk.” He turned and headed toward the door.

Crap. She couldn’t let him leave now that she’d gotten his attention. She’d been waiting all week for this opportunity. Nia pulled her wallet from her purse, yanked out her driver’s license, and rushed after him. “Here.” She shoved it into his hands.

He studied the thin plastic. “So you’re twenty-three, and from Brooklyn.” He handed it back.

“Satisfied?”

“I’m not that easily satisfied, Miss Sylk.” 

The cynical twist of his lips and his suggestive gaze ignited fires inside her Nia had never experienced before. She didn’t know exactly what she was supposed to feel when a man like Massimo Andretti looked at her that way. Since her father’s death, she’d been too busy working to support herself and Aaron and stay under the radar of the law. She’d never had time for boyfriends.

She’d been looking forward to having a life, to finally engaging in all the things girls her age had been enjoying since they were teenagers—things she’d had to set aside while she was raising her little brother. She had a lot of catching up to do with partying with her girlfriends, with dating, with falling in love and losing her virginity to the man of her choice. She’d been looking forward to learning, growing, and discovering herself—who she really was.

Instead, here she was, playing a dangerous game with a scoundrel who could hurt her, destroy her innocence before she had time to embrace it. But if she didn’t play along with Massimo, Aaron could die in front of her. So for that reason, with her heart beating wildly in her chest, Nia asked as casually as possible, “Well, are you going to take me up on my offer, Mr. Andretti?”

“What do you want in return for your... virginity?” He flipped his wrist indifferently.

Nia shrugged. “I’m not harboring any silly romantic notions, nor am I expecting any type of commitment, if that’s what you think. I just want to fulfill a fantasy.” That much was true.  She’d been fantasizing about Massimo ever since she’d seen him, six years ago.

“You traveled all the way from Brooklyn to offer me your virginity with no ulterior motives. And when I’ve had my fill, you’ll go back to Brooklyn with no hard feelings.”

“Well, that and four million dollars.”

A soft long whistle flowed through his pursed lips. “Is that what a virginity costs these days?”

“Since I haven’t sold one before, I wouldn’t know,” she stated haughtily. She knew four million dollars meant nothing to him. He spent double that on some of his mistresses. He’d bought many of them villas to encourage them to go their ways quietly. It was the MO of Andretti men. They thought anything and anyone could be bought and discarded at will, and that they could change their minds on a deal without any explanation and without any regard to how it affected other people. Their callous behavior had cost her father his life. “Anyway, I’d like the money in cash, if you don’t mind,” Nia added with a dignified jut of her chin.

“Sure. Keep it clean and simple. No paper trails.”

Under his withering gaze, Nia felt like a costly piece of marble being assessed for his private gallery. Perhaps this wasn’t such a very good idea, she thought as the silence grew and thickened. The unreadable, changing expressions in his eyes worried her. What if he was contemplating turning her in for solicitation? The cards were stacked against her. She was a desperate schoolteacher drowning in debt. No one would believe her if she tried to deny the accusations. 

On the other hand, Massimo was one of the wealthiest, most handsome, eligible bachelors on the planet. He didn’t have to pay for sex. Everybody would believe his version of the…

“Deal.”

Nia shook her head and blinked. Did he just say…

Andiamo.” He waved his hand in the air as if he’d just signed a contract on the purchase of a new car and continued on his way to the door.

“Wait!” Panic edged Nia’s voice.

He stopped midstride and turned, his head tipped to one side. “Changing your mind, Miss Sylk? You’re not quite ready to become a woman?”

“There are conditions to my proposal.”

“Now you tell me. Well, let’s hear them.”

Nia’s fist tightened around the cold metal of her purse strap. “I get half the money now and the other half after the— um—” She cleared her throat. “The deed is completed.”

“Fair. Anything else?”

“I need time to get to know you better before I— before you— before we— consummate the agreement.”

“Ahh!” He slapped his palm against his forehead in a clearly mocking manner. “You doubt my performance. Well, I assure you, Miss Sylk, no woman has ever left my bed unsatisfied. I can get my hands on some references if you’d like. I’m certain many of my former lovers would be happy to share their experiences with you. I’ve heard some of them even compare notes—positions, duration, locale. The kinds of things women brag about when they try to outperform each other.  Perhaps one day you’ll feel obliged to contribute to the blogs.”

Nia gasped. If she didn’t know it before, she knew now that she was making a pact with the most dangerous man on earth. Yes, they were just words, but they nevertheless sent heat rippling through her at the thought of rubbing skin and swapping bodily fluids with Massimo Andretti, and then blabbing about it. But that’s not the reason she’d come looking for him.

“Well, I’m certain you’re a master at the art of lovemaking, Mr. Andretti. It’s one of the reasons I chose you. But all the same, I just can’t jump into bed with you. A woman’s first time should be special.  She should feel comfortable and safe with her partner. I mean, we aren’t even on a first name basis, yet.”

“How much time, Nia?”

“One month.” That should give her enough time to settle her debt with Eddie, make arrangements for a new life with Aaron somewhere out of the country, and escape from Granite Falls with her virginity still intact and two million of Massimo’s dollars in tow—enough to make a decent life for her and Aaron. It wouldn’t make up for five years of suffering, but it would bring her comfort to know she’d outwitted the notorious Massimo Andretti.

“One week,” he said, pulling his mittens from his pockets and slipping them on.

“Three weeks,” Nia countered.

“One.”

“Two?”

“One. You’ll have two million dollars on Friday. I’ll have you next Tuesday, after which you’ll receive the other two million.  Fair?”

“Well—”

“That’s my final offer.”

“But—”

 “Good day, Miss Sylk.”  He reached the door in two swift strides.

Chapter 2

“Okay! I accept.”

Massimo turned his head and stared blankly at her, obviously waiting for her to make the next move. Nia pulled a folded piece of paper from her purse and walked over to him. “Here’s my contact information. Perhaps we can discuss the details of our arrangement over dinner tonight?”

“No.”

“No?”

“You come with me now, Nia, or the deal is off.” His eyes flashed imperiously and his tight lips indicated that the opportunities to negotiate were over.

Nia knew that if he walked out that door without her, she would never have this chance again. “Okay.”

“Okay.” He walked to a corner, dropped his weight down on a bench, and pulled a pair of humongous snow boots from under it.

While he changed out of his ski boots, Nia swallowing her defeat, and walked back to the table, picked up her parka, and pulled it on. She glanced over at the woman who’d abandoned her knitting needles and was now peering at her over the rim of her glasses. Nia wondered just how many women Massimo had picked up in this cabin. The woman would probably tell her if she had the guts to go over and ask. Thank goodness there were no other spectators around. Her father must be turning in his grave. His sweet little angel girl had turned into a…

Nia shut her mind against the nauseating term.

Feeling as if she’d just sold her soul to the devil, she followed Massimo out the door and into the cold March air. Tiny flurries landed on her face, immediately melting as they made contact with her flushed skin. She zippered her parka and arranged the hood over her head as Massimo draped his laced-together ski boots across his shoulders.

“Where are we going?” she asked as he retrieved his skis and poles from a hook on the side of the building and tucked them securely under one arm.

“Home.” He started down the mountain toward the parking lot, leaving deep, giant footprints in the powdery snow.

Was home his villa on Crystal Lake, or was it the sprawling Andretti Estate on Mount Reservoir? Whichever, it was not a good idea to be cooped up behind four walls with Massimo. She hadn’t planned on leaving with him today. She’d planned on returning to her hotel room to either gloat or groan—depending on whether or not he’d bitten her bait. Well, he’d bitten, and now she had to think of a way to slow down the process of her seduction which, judging from his long strides, he was in quite a hurry to begin.

“I can’t go home with you, Massimo,” Nia said, trying hard to keep the panic from her voice.

“Why?” The snow crunched under the weight of his boots.

“Well, it wouldn’t look good for us to be living together.”

The cold wind picked up his laugh and the pine trees echoed it around the mountain range. “You just offered to sell me your virginity for four million dollars and you’re worried about what people will say if you move into my house?”

Nia knew it was a lame excuse, but he’d put her on the spot. “Well, I’m staying at a hotel and I’m committed for the week. I wouldn’t get my money back if I left early. It’s their policy.”  

“I guess you’re staying at Hotel Andreas.”

“Yes.”

“I’m impressed.”

He’d be, Nia thought. Hotel Andreas was the most expensive hotel in the area. It was costing her upwards of three hundred and fifty dollars a night and she’d been there for four nights already. But when you’re planning to solicit the attention of one of the richest playboys in the universe, you want to look as impressive as possible. His cousin, Adam, with whom he shared a close relationship, owned the hotel, and when she’d set her plan in motion, Nia had taken that fact into consideration.

While familiarizing herself with the pattern of his daily life, she’d discovered that when Massimo was between affairs, he spent a great deal of time at his mountain estate and hardly ate out during that period. She’d also learned that he visited the bar at his cousin’s hotel quite frequently—probably where he picked up most of his one-night stands. Since he was presently unattached, Nia had predicted that it’d be easy to meet him, and so had booked her stay at his cousin’s hotel with the hopes of increasing her chances of running into him at the bar.

For the past four nights, Nia had dolled up and planted herself in a darkened corner of the bar that gave her a vantage point to observe without being observed. Unfortunately for her, last night was the first time Massimo had dropped in since she’d come to town. And doubly unfortunately, he was not alone.

“You travel in style,” Massimo stated on a mild chuckle, not missing a step. “How do you like Hotel Andreas?”

“It’s bleeding the life out of my bank account, but you’re worth it, Massimo.”

He laughed again. “I like a woman who speaks her mind. Don’t worry about the bill. I’ll pay it when we swing by the hotel to retrieve your belongings. Hopefully that’ll stop the bleeding.”

“I drove a rental here, so—um—” Nia fumbled for another excuse to stay her execution.

“I’ll have the rental company pick up the car and I’ll pay that bill, too. By Friday night, you’ll have two million dollars in cash, a credit card, a new wardrobe, and a brand new car—any make or model of your choice.” He stopped and turned suddenly causing her to bump full front into the brick wall he called a body.

Nia swore she’d broken a rib in the collision. He placed his free hand on her shoulder to keep her from falling at his feet.

Too close. He was too close. He smelled of man sweat and pristine snow. Earthy and inviting.  Nia’s breath caught in her throat.

“I have a reputation for taking care of all my women’s needs. So tell me, Nia Sylk, did I forget anything?” he said, his gaze bold and stimulating as he peered down at her.

Nia shook her head, too winded to talk. It’s a good thing she was breathless or she might have screwed herself by stating that she didn’t need a car or a credit card since she wouldn’t be around to use either of them. She’d definitely take the new wardrobe, though.  She’d be stupid not to.

His eyes narrowed into blue slits. “How did you know I’d be here today? I don’t usually ski on this deserted mountain and definitely not in the middle of the week or the day. I came here to escape and think. The last thing I expected was…well… your proposal to sell me your virginity.”

Nia bit into her bottom lip as his words amplified the humiliation she was already experiencing from making the proposal in the first place. What must he be thinking of her? Like she should care. She swallowed her pride and stared right back at him. “I’ve been dressing up for the past four nights and waiting for you to make an appearance at the hotel bar, Massimo. You finally came by last night, but alas you weren’t alone. I overheard you tell the man you were with that you would be skiing on this mountain today.”

“So you’ve been stalking me, Nia Sylk?”

“Like I said, I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.”

“You could have stopped by Andretti Industries. That’s how people usually gain an audience with me.”

Nia tried hard to ignore the burning of her skin under his hand that was still firmly clasped on her shoulder. The cold March wind was no match for the heat Massimo’s touch was causing inside her. She shuddered on a deep breath and pulled her parka tighter about her body. “I doubt I would have gotten past your security since I had no relevant business with you,” she said. “I thought the bar was the best place to attract your attention.” It’s where you pick up women. She wished she had the courage to voice that thought.

“And now that you’ve attracted my attention, cara mia, I hope you understand what that means.” A faint light seemed to flash in the depth of his eyes.

Nia’s nerves tensed. As simple as his statement was, it felt like a threat. She dropped her gaze, fearing he would be able to detect her plan to con him out of his money.

“If you want to change your mind, do it now,” he said softly, his hot breath misting the cold space between them, wrapping around her cold lips, warming them. “But be warned, Nia, it’s the only chance you’ll have to renege on this agreement. Once we get off this mountain, there’s no turning back. I will hold you to your promise and claim everything you’ve offered me, right down to your last breathless moan of surrender.”

Common sense told Nia to back down and run. But the thought of one of Eddie’s goons jumping Aaron in an alley and beating him to death in front of her, filled her with the will to stay the course. She would do just about anything to keep Aaron safe, even play house with the devil if it came to that. She took a deep breath of the cold air and met Massimo’s gaze again. “I’ll stay.”

A smirk played at the corner of his mouth. “You won’t be disappointed.” He released her, pulled his car fob from his pocket and pushed a button. He turned and began walking again, his head high, his body erect, his snow-dusted wavy hair dancing about his head in the breeze.

Nia stumbled to keep up with him, her mind spinning in a crazy mixture of hope, fear, and fury. How had he done it, huh? How had he taken her proposition and made it his? How had he turned her bargain into his own? If she weren’t careful, he would carry out his threat to claim her body, then he’d walk away as if she had merely offered him a slice of chocolate cake with a cherry on top.

Even though she would have the money to pay off Eddie and enough to start new lives for her and Aaron, it would be a humiliating defeat if she fell victim to Massimo’s sex appeal and surrendered the booty she’d offered him.

This was her game, damn it! She had made up all the rules and plotted the end results. She would not allow Massimo Andretti to bully her, sabotage her plan, and rewrite the outcome of her scheme.

When they reached the parking lot, Massimo called the rental company while she got her personal items from the car. That task completed, she followed him to his ride, a Mercedes-Benz G550. When he held the door for her, Nia glided on to the warm leather seat. She watched with anxiety as he walked around the front and climbed behind the steering wheel, immediately sucking up the air and space inside the vehicle. Every breath she took was saturated with the smell of leather and man. The sexual magnetism that made him so irresistible threatened to undo her.

Again, she pushed it aside, determined to stay focused on her mission, especially since she only had a week to see her plan through. When she’d ventured out on this mission, Nia wasn’t certain Massimo would accept her offer. But whether or not he had, she’d known she couldn’t return to her life in New York where—number one, he could track her down, and number two, where Eddie would be waiting for her. She needed time to finalize her plan of escape and wipe all traces of Nia Sylk off the face of the earth. 

But Massimo had only given her one week.

“Why are you so quiet?” Massimo asked as they pulled onto the road. “I thought you’d be showering me with questions by now, trying to get to know me better as you so ardently put it.”

“I’m just thinking.”

“About?”

“Oh, my new wardrobe, new car, and my four million dollars.”

He chuckled heartily. “You know, I’ve always preferred experienced women in my bed.  I find innocence and inexperience boring. But,” he added, nodding his head assuredly, “I think I may enjoy breaking you in. When I’m done with you, Miss Nia Sylk, you’ll be so spoiled, you’ll never want any other man to touch you.”

Even though she knew he was taunting her, his words caused a tingling in the pit of Nia’s stomach. “You’re so sure of your sexual prowess, aren’t you, Massimo? You may not have what it takes to satisfy me or keep up with me for that matter. I may just be the woman who brings you to your knees,” she taunted right back.

His laugh grew harder as he tossed her a look that could melt a mile-thick Siberian iceberg. “Oh, cara, you will bring me to my knees. One way or the other, I will kneel before you. I can’t wait to show you just how hot I can make your virgin engine hum. You might even blow a few gaskets.”

“You still have to wait a week to find out, Massimo” Nia said, even as she squeezed her thighs together to combat the bolts of electricity that zinged between them.

“You’re truly naïve when it comes to men, aren’t you, Nia? We enjoy the chase, the anticipation of the kill almost as much as we enjoy the prey once we catch it. Believe me when I tell you that I’m already enjoying every second of this chase. I can wait, Nia. Question is, will you be able to?”

Turning her face toward the window, Nia smiled at the thought that by Saturday evening, she and two million of his dollars would be long gone. Her smile deepened as she envisioned him combing New York from one end to the other, looking for her when she wouldn’t even be in the country.

Now that the threat to her and Aaron’s lives might be gone, Nia settled into her seat and allowed powerful relief to fill her. For the first time in five years, she would be able to live without looking over her shoulder, and live well at that. There was so much she could do with a million dollars.

In a few days Massimo’s promises, his threats and taunts would be a blur on the horizon of her mind. In the meantime, she had to play the role of a besotted lover to reduce his suspicions about her.  “You’re right,” she said, turning her head to give him a seductive smile. “I can’t wait to make love with you, Massimo, but like I said, I need it to be special.”

“Oh, it will be special, Nia. Images of you quivering beneath me are already fueling my desire and determination to have you.”

From the lustful gleam in his eyes, Nia imagined that he probably intended to start ravishing her at a second past midnight next Monday, then at dawn Tuesday morning, he’d place her and her suitcase by the side of the road, lick his lips, and get back on his Casanovian journey as if she never even crossed his path.

Did she really think he was that gullible? Massimo thought as he navigated the SUV along a slippery country road. He knew she had no intentions of surrendering her virginity—willingly, that is. And he knew he’d have no trouble convincing her to spread her legs for him if he so desired. He wasn’t yet sure if she was worth the trouble.

She claimed she’d never offered herself to a man before. It’s possible she was telling the truth.  Judging from her extravagant outfit, it was also possible that this virgin act was her MO to riches. And her little speech about Hotel Andreas bleeding her bank account, yeah right. How many wealthy idiots had she conned before? How many were out there scratching their heads wondering where she and their millions had disappeared to?

Again, his thoughts went to his half brother. After the shock of learning that he had a sibling had dissolved, Massimo had begun digging into the boy’s background. Galen Carmichael was under the impression that his father died before he was born. He had no idea he was the progeny of one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. Having no interest in forming a relationship with him, Massimo had not contacted him.

Massimo assumed that a ‘nondisclosure of paternity’ was one of the deals his father had made with his whore, Judith Carmichael, when she disappeared from Granite Falls twenty-odd years ago with Galen already planted in her belly. Luciano had supported Galen financially and had provided him with as excellent an education as he’d provided Massimo, but the old man had left absolutely nothing for his bastard son.

Massimo gritted his teeth at the memory of walking into his father’s office and finding him on the couch with Judith. He was only nine years old, and although he couldn’t understand what he’d witnessed, he’d known that it was wrong. It was the beginning of his estranged relationship with his father. Massimo never told his mother about the affair between his father and his secretary, but he was certain she knew. Women had a way of sensing these things.

Massimo wondered if Judith had revealed the identity of his father to her son before her death, late last year. If that were the case, then he could understand Galen’s interest in the vast empire their father had left behind. But then again, he thought as he stopped at a four-way stop, neither Galen nor Judith would have had knowledge of the contents of Luciano’s last will and testament.

But if his assumptions were correct about the boy learning that Luciano was his father, and that he might have hired Nia—not to stop Massimo from gaining control of his inheritance, but so Galen could gain inside information about Andretti business—Massimo swore he’d bury both of them alive.

If they were indeed coconspirators, what was Nia’s role in the plot? Was she just for hire or was she Galen’s woman whom he’d pawned out? Had he seen her in a picture with Galen, maybe in the background of a photo his surveillance crew had sent him? Is that why her eyes seemed so familiar to him?

He had so many questions, and only two days to put this sexy Sylk puzzle together. By Friday… Damn!

Massimo applied the brakes as he came up on another intersection. Dafne, his fiancée, was arriving from Bellagio on Friday to sign the contracts on their marriage arrangement and settle in before they exchanged vows on Monday. His original plan was to fly to Italy tomorrow and finalize the deal there, but at his attorney’s insistence that the contract be signed on U.S. soil, he’d arranged for her to come here. He would have to inform Dafne of the change in plans as soon as he got the chance. He couldn’t very well have his potential lover and his potential wife sleeping under the same roof, could he?

Massimo took a deep breath as he released the gas pedal and gassed the SUV forward.

Desperation had pushed him into this marital agreement with Dafne Bellini, the daughter of a maid who worked at the Andretti home in Bellagio. He and Dafne had been friends since they were both five years old. She knew all his secrets. Even though their relationship had suffered some enormous strains over the years, she remained one of the four people in the world he trusted with his life.

So it was natural that he would turn to her after his breakup with Gabrielle had left him in a panic.  Massimo had been astonished when Dafne offered to marry him as long as he did not make their engagement public. Except for that one encounter in their very distant past, neither of them had shown any sexual interest in each other. Their friendship was far more important than sex, and to keep it that way, Dafne had specified that she would produce his heir through nonsexual means only. Massimo could only hope that she would change her mind. He could not live without sex for the next three years of his life. No way in hell was that going to happen.

The fact that Dafne knew why he had to marry gave her a lot of power over him. Who knows what was going on in her mind now that she had him cornered up a tree like a leopard fleeing from a lion? Massimo knew firsthand how power could change a person. He hated being in this position, but he would be an idiot to surrender a company he’d spent most of his life building to a bastard half brother he despised. He wanted nothing to do with the offspring of Judith Carmichael, the woman he blamed for his own mother’s untimely death.

Immediately following the reading of his father’s will, Massimo had begun building his own empire. The product was La Banca di Bianchi, a chain of European banks he’d established in his mother’s maiden name. In addition, he owned several companies, and was a major shareholder in numerous financial corporations throughout the globe. To guarantee that his interests were free and clear of Andretti Industries, he’d borrowed the investment funds from his friend, Bryce Fontaine, all of which he’d paid back with interest within two years. He really didn’t need Andretti Industries, but he wasn’t about to walk away from a conglomeration whose success he’d been contributing to since he was eleven years old, and there was no way in hell he was going to give up the house where he was born and raised, and where the fondest memories of his mother still lingered.

No Carmichael would ever set foot inside that house.

That fact was the deciding element in his agreement to marry Dafne. Nobody else but his lawyer, his two best friends, Bryce and Erik, and his cousin Adam knew he had to be married on or before next Saturday, but they were unaware of the deal between Dafne and him. Just last night, Bryce had commended him for sticking it to his father by letting his inheritance go. He was already a self-made billionaire, so why saddle himself with a wife—the one possession he’d sworn never ever to own?

But being controlled for three years was a more palatable toxin than ultimate defeat, Massimo decided as he pulled off Route 80 onto Andreas Way in downtown Granite Falls and headed toward the hotel.

Having Nia and Dafne under the same roof would leave room for questions, slipups, and revelations—revelations he preferred to keep from his half brother until he was unhappily married and holding the next generation of Andrettis in his arms. Until he knew exactly what Nia wanted with him, it was best he kept the women apart. It was a good thing Dafne wanted to keep their arrangement a secret. It would be difficult to explain the presence of one young woman in his house when he was engaged to marry another. To the world, he was still a bachelor, and he would remain thus for the next few days when he eventually announced the news of his marriage.

In the meantime, he would give Miss Sylk—if that really was her name—all the silk rope she needed to hang her own pretty little neck. Then he would spool her in for the bloody takedown.

* * *

Nia stepped off the elevator and into the lobby of the hotel in time to see the concierge hand Massimo a piece of paper she assumed was her bill. 

I belong to him now, she thought as she watched him scrawl his signature on the receipt.  He had bought her, just as he bought companies, yachts, jets, or whatever his avaricious heart desired. There was no turning back now, just as there had been no turning back six years ago when he reneged on the business agreement between their fathers.

Memories assailed Nia as she strolled ahead of the bellboy who carried her bags. She remembered how relieved her father had been the day he signed the contract with Luciano Andretti. She also remembered how worried he’d been in the months leading up to that day. By the time Luciano had agreed to help, her father had already mortgaged their family home and had cashed in his retirement and his children’s college funds to keep the mill open.

According to Luciano, a paper mill—one of the remaining few in New England—was an asset to Andretti Industries. There had been plans to expand beyond paper production, plans that would be financially beneficial to both parties. But Massimo apparently thought differently, and after being told that the new CEO of Andretti Industries was no longer interested in honoring the contract with West Gate Paper Mills, her father had turned to a loan shark for help. When that money evaporated, the bank foreclosed on the mill, putting her father and a hundred and fifty other employees out of work. The final blow came when the bank foreclosed on their house, leaving her family homeless.

It hadn’t eased Nia’s pain when she’d learned that the new owner had renovated the mill, rehired most of the former employees, and turned it into the most prosperous in the area. Her father was already dead and she and Aaron had been forced to leave the only home they’d ever known.

And now to fulfill her father’s request to take care of Aaron, she’d offered to become of all things—Massimo Andretti’s whore. His property. His eagerness to shell out four million dollars—well, two, since she wouldn’t be around to collect the other two million—just for the pleasure of bedding her gave her pause. Did he find her that irresistible?  And should she trust him to adhere to the terms of their agreement?

As Nia joined Massimo at the concierge’s desk, he turned and smiled down at her. “Have everything, cara?”

Nia nodded, the warmth in his voice and eyes making her tremble inside. Half an hour ago, he’d insisted on following her up to her room when a man with a French accent had approached him in the lobby.

When he stepped aside to converse with the man in French, Nia had taken the opportunity to bolt. She was thankful he’d been otherwise engaged, and that he hadn’t bothered to come up after his conversation with the man was over. She didn’t think it would have been wise to be alone with Massimo and a huge bed in a hotel room. She was honest enough to admit that it probably wouldn’t take much for Massimo to persuade her to change her mind about waiting a week to make love.

She was after all a healthy young woman with hot blood running through her veins. And he was a hunk.

She forced a smile as Massimo folded his copy of the receipt and slipped it into the pocket of his parka. Stepping closer to her, he placed his hand on the small of her back and steered her toward the revolving doors, ahead of the bellboy who followed with her luggage.

They drove in silence through downtown Granite Falls—away from Crystal Lake that bordered one side of Hotel Andreas. Nia shifted uneasily on the seat when she realized he was taking her to the Andretti mansion on Mount Reservoir—a fortress that would be most difficult to escape from. She’d hoped that when he’d said he was taking her home, he’d meant the lakeside villa his succession of mistresses occupied during his affairs with them.

No such luck for her. To calm her anxiety, Nia took in her surroundings as they drove along. The streets, that a few days ago were crowded with weekend ski bunnies from the south, were now all but deserted. It was a lovely little town, a sort of unexpected mecca hidden at the foothills of the White Mountains, Nia thought as Massimo steered around a traffic circle surrounded by small businesses, local boutiques, cafés, restaurants, and other touristy shops, housed in beautifully renovated old mill buildings. The Aiken River that had powered the mills—many of which had been owned by the Andretti family for decades—now flowed unhindered behind the buildings.

Nia could only imagine how lovely the summers were here with the beaches teeming with the town’s residents, noisy children playing on the shores, and small yachts cruising along the beautiful Crystal Lake. Too bad she couldn’t stay long enough to enjoy some of it.

“Are you stopping at your office?” she asked as they traveled north on Industrial Drive and the glass tower that housed Andretti Industries headquarters loomed ahead of them. She could really use some time away from him.  His nearness caused her mind to go into confusion and robbed her of her ability to think logically.  And she needed to think and plot.

“No,” was his only response as he passed Andretti Way that led to his office, made a left turn on to Route 80, crossed the Aiken River Bridge, and headed west into the mountains.

Nia took a glance at him and noted his set face, clamped mouth, and fixed eyes. His mood had definitely changed since she’d left him to go up to her hotel room to pack. Nia wondered if it had something to do with his conversation with the French man who’d approached him in the lobby. During the first few minutes of that conversation, even though she’d had no idea what they were talking about, Nia had detected tenseness in Massimo as if he’d received unpleasant news.

Sensing he was in no mood to talk, Nia left him alone to his brooding.

Finally Massimo pulled off the highway and started a climb up a steep paved road. A thick white forest with branches bowing laboriously from the weight of snow encased them. After a few minutes, he made another turn and drove along a somewhat level road that took them further into the mountain. A wrought-iron gate opened automatically as they approached it then closed behind them.

A cold shiver raced up Nia’s spine. She felt like she’d just driven through the gates of hell with Satan at the helm. A flicker of real fear coursed through her veins as the gross enormity of what she had done took a heavy toll on her senses.

“Too late,” Massimo said as they rounded a corner and reached a small plateau that overlooked deep ravines and a labyrinth of lakes in the distance. He stopped the Mercedes, applied the parking brake, and unbuckled his seatbelt.

The sensual look in his eyes was unmistakable. As much as she resented him, Nia knew that if he touched her, she would instantly dissolve like a snowball on a hot tin roof.

“Come, Nia. I wish to taste you, now.”

“Massimo, we haven’t even had a date yet, and I don’t kiss on the first date.” Nia forced humor into her voice, but the quaking of her body belied the fear and desire she felt deep in her core.

With little effort, Massimo unfastened her seatbelt and pulled her halfway across the seat.  “I’m a businessman, Nia. We made a deal. In business, it’s always wise to sample the goods before the final purchase. I will sample the goods you offered. The last thing I need is a scared little kitten in my bed.”

“I’m not scared of you,” she lied out loud, hoping he couldn’t hear the thumping of her heart against her chest.

“Prove it.”

He slid closer and Nia almost fainted from the heady smell of male flesh and the hungry glare in his electric blue eyes. Her gaze dropped to his sexy mouth and she knew he could very well swallow her whole right here, right now. She licked her lips. “Massimo, I don’t think—”

“Perfect. I don’t want you to think. Just feel…  me.” He pulled her softly against him.

“Massimo, you promised—”

“Don’t fight me, Nia. Let your body relax and enjoy the call of desire. It’s good practice for next Monday when we seal our little agreement.” He held her chin in his hand, and his mouth came down upon hers, soft and fluttering like a feather. He brushed his lips against hers then slowly traced his tongue along the outline, causing tiny explosions to erupt from ever pore of her body.

Aprire la sua boca,” he whispered, clasping one hand at the back of her head and tangling his fingers in her hair. “Avvolgere le braccia intorno al nio collo.”

Nia didn’t speak a word of Italian, but somehow she understood him. Her lips parted, and as his hot tongue swept inside her mouth, Nia wrapped her arms around his neck as he’d ordered. She clung to him as an invisible fire threatened to consume her, bone, blood, and flesh. Her heart drummed loudly as she surrendered to the enemy, as lust devoured revenge, and desire robbed her of all logic.

Massimo pulled up her sweater. His warm hand crawled along her ribcage and his long fingers expertly pulled down the lacy cups of her bra, baring her achy breasts to his touch.

Nia whimpered against his mouth as her nipples tingled and hardened against his smooth palm. He molded her breasts with skillful fingers, causing an intense yearning in her belly that quickly spread to the core of her throbbing sex. Moisture collected in her panties. She squeezed her thighs together to combat the pleasure, but quickly relaxed them when she realized it only intensified the ache.

Yielding to Massimo’s seductions was against the rules. Her body and her mind had betrayed her. All she could count on now was her heart. It had to remain impassive to him. And she didn’t think she could trust it. 

“Do you still think I can’t satisfy you, Nia?” he asked against her lips. He kept his hand on the heaving mound of one breast and continued caressing the hard nipple between his thumb and forefinger. “Do you find me inadequate?”

Nia squeezed her lids shut, refusing to answer. She couldn’t talk. Shouldn’t talk. Or she might foolishly ask him not to stop. As much as she loathed him, she had to admit that she’d been dreaming of kissing Massimo for six long years. She’d heard that sexual fantasies were a lot better than the real thing. Massimo Andretti just blew that theory out the steamed-up windows of his SUV. Her fantasies about him were prayer vigils compared to his kiss and his touch.

“You’re a very desirable woman, Nia Sylk. It will be extremely difficult keeping my hands off you for a week.” He reluctantly released her breasts, pulled his hand from under her sweater and moved back to his side of the vehicle.

Nia’s eyes slowly opened to encounter the passionate fire glowing in the sentient depths of his. She wanted to look away, break the spell, but it seemed some invisible cord held her transfixed. She was bewitched. She licked her burning, trembling lips.

“You have the most incredible brown eyes. They set my heart on fire each time I gaze into them,” he said in a husky voice. “And when you lick your lips and stare at me like that…” He growled deep in his throat and shook his head, his black wavy hair brushing his shoulders.  “You have to help me live up to our agreement, Nia. You have to stop being so damn sexy or I will not be held responsible for breaching our ‘no sex for one week’ agreement.”

Help him? She couldn’t even help herself, and she wasn’t trying to be sexy.

With her heart pounding erratically, Nia scurried to her corner and pulled the lace back up over her breasts. It was just like Massimo not to clean up his own mess. She’d known that at some point they would kiss. It was what lovers do. What she didn’t know was that a mere kiss would leave her this breathless, this weak.

She wasn’t ready for this. For him. Thank God they would be sleeping in separate rooms. If she had to share a bed with this master-at-getting-what-he-wanted, she knew her resistance would be futile. She had to stay strong, get the money, then escape from Massimo’s lair of seduction before it was too late.

As they continued up the mountain, another gate opened up, and two bulging, armed security guards in an expansive gatehouse waved them through. Yep, escaping from this prison would be much more difficult than it would have been from his lakeside villa. But she’d come with a will to escape Massimo Andretti, and where there was a will, there was always a way. She just had to be a little more creative in far less time than she’d originally anticipated.

They rounded a bend and the sprawling Andretti Estate popped into view—acres and acres of evergreen terrain with buildings of varying sizes and shapes scattered about. The main house, a white and blue limestone structure that comprised of three sections—a three-story center flanked by two-story wings on either side—dominated all the other buildings on the estate. A combination of evergreen and deciduous snow-dusted trees surrounded the intricate architecture, creating the picture of a stunning Italian citadel set in the middle of an arctic jungle.

Nia looked on breathlessly at the serendipitous surrounding as Massimo stopped in the courtyard—an extension of the middle section that expanded into a wide covered portico. 

It was a fortress where the public was never allowed. One entered these grounds by invitation only. Electric fences, treacherous ravines, and armed guards kept the paparazzi at a distance. The few photographs Nia had seen in several issues of Granite Falls People News didn’t do the estate the slightest bit of justice. 

The earlier Andrettis were reportedly not social at all. After his father died, many thought that Massimo, the modern-day playboy, would open up his home and allow the public inside, but the world was still waiting with bated breath. It was as if they were guarding some dark family secret. Were there bodies buried on the grounds or trapped behind walls and stairwells?

Feeling a chill rush up her spine, Nia pulled her parka tightly about her shoulders as Massimo open the door of the Mercedes. He helped her down to the stone cut floor of the covered portico, then up a flight of steps toward the front door.

“My luggage,” she said looking back.

“It’ll be taken care of.”

A teenage boy with curly blond hair emerged from a door on the side of the mansion. “Buonasera, Signor Andretti,” he called out to Massimo. 

Massimo responded in a rush of Italian sentences. The boy nodded and gave Nia a shy smile before he climbed into the vehicle and drove off behind the house.

As the cold dry air swirled around her, Nia shivered. She wanted to go home, but when she remembered that she had no home to go to, and that she would never again have one if she backed out of this deal with Massimo, she swallowed the sob in her throat.

Massimo tried the knob on the front door and cursed under his breath when it didn’t turn.  He pushed a button on the wall. 

A few minutes later, the heavy oak door opened and a robust woman greeted them.  “Jambo, Massimo. You forgit you key agin,” she said in a thick accent Nia thought sounded African.

“I didn’t forget my key, Azi. You insist on locking my door when I’ve repeatedly asked you to leave it unlocked.”

She placed a hand over her heart and pretended to be affronted. “You’re in a gooood mooood tonight, I see, Mr. Massimo. Goood t’ing I made one of your favorite disheees to soothe your grumpy mooood, eh? Her eyes widened as they settled on Nia. “And I see you have brought company.  A lady friend, eh? Will she be stayin’ fer dinna?” Her big white teeth glittered in the light from the ceiling.

Nia was suddenly overwhelmed with shame. She felt… soiled. This woman knew why she was here. With so many affairs to his credit, she was sure she was not the first woman Massimo had brought to his home. Why would this gentle-faced woman think she was any different from all the others who’d willingly given themselves to her boss? Good heavens, she was worse. She’d sold herself to him. If she walked through that door…

Just as she turned to bolt down the steps, Massimo’s arm closed around her waist. He pushed her through the door into a spacious domed foyer that extended into a long hallway.

Nia glanced around the foyer with its vaulted brightly colored Italian Renaissance ceilings and walls. The interior architecture was just as magnificent as the exterior, but she thought the decoration and furniture could use a makeover to bring them into the modern sophistication of the twenty-first century.

“Yes, Azi, I have company.” Massimo shrugged out of his parka, slid Nia’s from her shoulders, and shoved them into Azi’s hands. “Nia will be my guest for a few days.” He turned to Nia. “My housekeeper, Azi. She will make your visit very comfortable.”

Nia stared at Azi who seemed to enjoy teasing Massimo, and who was acting more like a grandmother than a housekeeper. She wondered at the true nature of their relationship.

“I’ll prepare one of the guest rooms,” Azi said. 

“That won’t be necessary. Nia will be sleeping in the master suit,” Massimo said.

Nia’s head snapped around. “We’re not sharing a bedroom, Massimo. That was not the deal.  Remember?”

Ignoring the hint of panic in her voice, Massimo sniffed the air. “Is that lobster I smell, Azi?”

Yeees.  One of your favorite dishes.”

He noted the perturbed glance Azi cast in Nia’s direction. He understood Azi’s confusion and surprise. She was privy to his arrangement with Dafne, and was probably wondering what the hell he was doing bringing a strange young girl to the mansion just days before his nuptial. Hell, he was still puzzled as to why he’d brought Nia here instead of taking her to Crystal Lake where he housed his women.

Explaining the situation to Azi was inevitable, and he had no doubt that she would have a few spiteful laughs over it. In the meantime, he had to assert some kind of control over his household even if he had none over his life. He glanced at the Rolex on his wrist. “When will dinner be ready?”

“In about two hours. The stew has been standing for four, so far. Don’t be late. It has to be eaten at jeeest the right moment.”

“Excellent.  We’ll be on time. And we’ll take dinner in the formal dining room.”

“Okay.  But did you forgit about—”

“That’ll be all, Azi.” He dismissed her with a flip of his wrist. 

The minute Azi left, Nia attacked him. “Massimo Andretti, we had an agreement. We aren’t supposed to—”

“And we won’t,” he said quietly, watching her eyes darken to a tempestuous brown, the amber specks flashing in the background like the remnants of a Fourth of July fireworks explosion. They were even sexier when she was mad.

“We agreed not to do... it.... until... for a week.”

“Do what?”

“Have sex,” she whispered as if the walls had ears. “You promised we wouldn’t share a bed for a week.”

“Have sex, yes. Share a bed, no. You laid down the law, Nia. You said you wanted to know me better. Well, my little virgin, you will know me better. You will know me so well, you’ll be able to pick me out of a lineup blindfolded by simply running your hands along my naked body.”

A shock ran through Nia. The one place she couldn’t fight him was in the bedroom, and he knew it. He’d tricked her again.

Her arm came up.

Massimo caught her wrists, eased her backwards, and pinned her against the door with his body. “Don’t you ever raise your hands to me again,” he warned smoothly. “Or I will retaliate in the same way I did in the car. Only next time, it won’t stop with just a kiss. I’ll take you all the way for a slow, long, hard, and intensely enjoyable ride. Do you understand me, Nia Sylk?”

She continued to glare at him, fighting her way out of his grasp. 

Massimo pressed his body deeper into hers, rotating his hips slightly, giving her the full brunt of his arousal. He felt her weaken. He relaxed his hold. At about five feet, six inches, the top of her head barely made it to his chest, yet she dared defy him. No other woman had ever challenged him this way. They were too afraid he would cut them loose. He didn’t know about breaking in horses, but Nia Sylk was one temerarious kitten he looked forward to taming.

“You will share my bed and lie between my silk sheets, Nia Sylk,” he whispered against her cheek. “Every night, until I claim what you offered. Next time you make a bargain, be specific in your negotiations. As a businessman, I had to learn the hard way to never assume anything. It could make a punda out of you. That’s ‘donkey’ in Swahili, in case you’re wondering.”

Massimo’s jaws clenched. If he’d know the cost of assuming, Maurice Spencer, the former executor of his father’s estate would not have had the opportunity to almost destroy Andretti Industries. His father had trusted Maurice and thought the company would be safe in his hands until Massimo reached the required age of thirty, but Luciano was obviously wrong again. In his attempt to control Massimo, the company he’d slaved at all his life had almost followed him into the grave.

Several years later, Massimo was still trying to clean up the mess Spencer had made. On that disturbing memory, Massimo extracted his body from Nia’s. “Follow me,” he said to her.

Still trembling—more from his touch than from anger, Nia followed him down the mirrored corridor. She need not fear his wrath, she realized with a despondent cry in her heart.  He had other means of controlling her. Suddenly, tricking him out of his money didn’t seem like the best route to take anymore. She was seriously concerned about what the lasting effects her association with him would have on her heart.

“Massimo?” she asked, as the corridor ended into a mostly white sitting room. “How do I know I can trust you not to break our agreement?”

He bypassed two flights of stairs and stopped at a glass-encased elevator. “You can trust me, Nia. I give you my word. We will not consummate our agreement for a week, unless you change your mind. A man’s word is his honor. I am a man of honor. You trust me, don’t you?”

As they entered the elevator, Nia’s mind skittered back to the day, six years ago, when he’d uttered the same words to a room full of factory workers. She’d snuck into the building against her father’s wishes and lurked in the back of the cafeteria behind the employees as Massimo promised that he would honor the contract his then recently-deceased father had made with hers.

Nia remembered thinking in her fluttering seventeen-year-old heart that he was the hottest guy she’d ever seen—even hotter than Ian Somerhalder—her idol up until the moment she saw Massimo Andretti. Like the first thing that pops into every infatuated teenage girl’s head, she’d fantasized about marrying the Italian hunk and having his babies one day.

Such foolish, childish dreams!

 She would so love to tell this forked-tongue jerk just what he could do with his honor, but instead she smiled easily at him. “Yes, I trust you, Massimo.”

Chapter 3

Massimo opened a door on the third floor and stood back for Nia to precede him into the room. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as Jabari leaped off the floor and charged toward them.

Nia screamed and jumped back against his chest.

He hastily pulled her behind him, grabbed a canister from a table near the door and raised it as he shouted to the animal. Jabari stopped his charge halfway across the room, dropped to the floor, and eyed Massimo through bright amber eyes.

Without turning his back on Jabari, Massimo motioned Nia back into the hallway. “Stay here and don’t move a muscle.” He closed the door with his heel.

He walked toward the animal, canister in one hand, ready to spray. He gestured toward a large cage with the other. He let out his breath when Jabari rose and walked into the cage that shut automatically behind him. “Sit, Jabari.”

Jabari dropped to the floor, his front legs extended and his head upright.

Knowing the animal posed no further threat to Nia, Massimo dropped the canister and rushed across the room, half expecting her to be gone. He opened the door and sighed in relief when he found her standing right where he’d left her, perhaps too frightened to move.

He pulled her inside and wrapped his arms about her. Her heart was racing a mile a minute. He pressed her face against his chest and ran his hands down her arms and back with sure steady strokes.

He had been so caught up with Nia’s proposal, then preoccupied with the information he’d received in the hotel lobby that he’d completely forgotten about Jabari. Damn it. Azi had been trying to remind him that Jabari was here when he dismissed her so impatiently. His ego could have caused Nia harm. “I’m sorry he scared you,” he whispered.

“What is it?” She curled her trembling body further into his, and tightened her arms about his waist.

Massimo’s heart rocked against his chest. “A leopard. My pet leopard.” He loved the way she leaned fully into his strength. She smelled lovely, like sun and snow and strawberries dipped in smooth chocolate whip. He wanted to lick her all over then gulp her down with a glass of champagne.

“Does he usually come after your women like that?”

Massimo placed his hand under her chin, lifting her face to his. Fear spiked in her earthy eyes. “Jabari has never met any of my... women.”

“So why’d you bring me to him? So he could scare me into submission?”

“Oh no, pussycat. I would never deliberately put you into harm’s way. I totally forgot about Jabari.” He chuckled, but then his heart stumbled on a beat as he experienced that strange familiarity about her again. He’d seen her in his dreams, many times before, but she claimed they’d never met. He shook off the eeriness. “My head has been spinning ever since I met you.” Literally.

“Most men who want a big animal as a best friend get a German shepherd or a Doberman. You got a leopard.”

“I love pussy...cats.”

She rolled her eyes and eased out of his embrace. “Wild exotic ones, obviously.” She gestured to several pictures of big cats in a variety of vast landscapes on a wall.

You are wild and exotic, he thought, watching the play of emotions on her face as her eyes settled on a pair of leopards captured in the act of mating. He smiled when she swallowed and turned quickly away. The thought that she was probably burning up inside amused him. “Jabari isn’t wild,” he said. “I’ve raised him from a cub. He was a present from my nono, my grandfather.”

She rolled her eyes at that too. Pretty eccentric, he agreed.

He remembered feeling lost and hopeless when the family had traveled to Kenya to scatter his mother’s ashes. It was then that Nono had brought him the cute little orphan cub.  Nono had told him he hoped they brought each other comfort. Massimo hadn’t known it then, but years later when he’d returned to Kenya to scatter his father’s ashes in the jungle, Jabari had turned out to be the most valuable gift he’d ever received.

Massimo pressed his palm against the right side of his torso. Even through his ski clothes and flannel shirt, he could feel the raised rounded scar of his wound from where the rhino’s horn had gouged him. It had stopped aching over the years, and had simply become a numb reminder of the precariousness of life. If it weren’t for Jabari’s exceptional strength and ingenuity, he would have perished in that Kenyan jungle. Man and cat had bonded on a superior level that near-fatal day.

He usually made up stories at his lovers’ enquiries about the cause of the scar. Would he tell Nia the truth when her curiosity got the better of her? He shook his head. What was he thinking? Nia would never see his scar since they would never be intimate, not in the light of day, anyway. 

“Does he live here with you?” she asked, pulling his thoughts back to the present. “I know some states prohibit keeping exotic animals as pets. Is New Hampshire one of them?”

“No, and yes,” he said answering her questions in chronological order.

“So I guess you’re breaking the law in having him in your home.”

He chuckled at her supercilious crack about his character. “I’m not breaking any laws, Nia.  Only USDA licensed exhibitors are allowed to own wildcats in this state. But I have what is called a Category B license.”

“What’s that?”

“In order to qualify for that special permit, I had to procure two thousand hours of paid experience with a licensed exhibitor. I can house Jabari on the estate, but I cannot allow him to have any direct contact with the public.”

“Is that why no one knows about him?”

“Basically. Only those I trust.” 

“I’ve heard about those two Australians who formed a lifetime bond with their lion, Christian,” she said. “They bought him when he was just a cub, raised him, and then released him back into the wild in Kenya. Even after that, when they went back to Kenya to visit him, he remembered them. Until I watched that documentation, I never thought it possible for humans and wildcats to bond on such a mutually deep and trusting level.”

“It is possible, Nia,” he said softly, touched at her knowledge and understanding.

“Where does Jabari live?”

“Jabari spends most of his time on a reservation in Kenya. I travel there often to visit him.  He’s here for his biannual check-up.”

“Is he okay?” she asked with surprising concern.

“Well, he’s almost twenty-five years old.”

“That’s old for a cat.”

He nodded on a deep sigh. Jabari had been in his life since he was ten years old, and the thought of him dying brought Massimo much anguish. “Yes, but he’s in perfect health, although not as strong as he used to be. His roar is much more dangerous than his bite these days.”

“Glad to hear that.”

He chuckled. “I usually fly Howard, his vet, to Kenya, but Howard’s suffering from an ear infection and can’t fly, so I brought Jabari to him.” He’d also wanted to spend some time with his old friend before Dafne arrived, and before they settled down into marital nightmare, but he couldn’t share that information with Nia. “He’s heading back to Kenya tomorrow,” Massimo said, just then deciding to cut Jabari’s stay by one day. He did not have the luxury to assimilate Nia into Jabari’s life at the moment. Time was of the essence since he knew she would try to run away in two days. On the other hand, Jabari was a jealous cat that needed constant affection that Mass could not offer with Nia around. A brief introduction would have to work for now. “Come meet him.” He led her over to the cage. He knelt on the floor and slapped his palms against his thighs.  “Jabari, come here.”

Jabari stared at him through vigilant bright-yellow eyes before shifting his gaze to Nia.

Nia’s hand gripped his shoulder when Jabari let out a high-pitched snarl followed by a low purring hiss. Massimo recognized the sound as one of abidance and friendship. “It’s okay.” He patted Nia’s death-grip on his shoulder. He smiled when Jabari rose from the floor of the cage and walked towards them in as graceful a stride as his short legs would allow. His strong muscles rippled under his tawny coat, covered with dark circular rosettes.

Nia held her breath as the cat came closer. Even though he was now cased behind a sturdy enclosure, and Massimo had said he was potentially harmless, she was still afraid of him.  But she took comfort in the knowledge that Massimo was here to protect her. But then again, if his pet leopard had gobbled her up, he would’ve been denied the pleasure of devouring her himself at the end of the week, wouldn’t he?

She tried not to dwell on how safe she’d felt in his arms moments ago. If he could shield her from a big cat, he sure had the means to shield her from a loan shark like Eddie. The way he’d held her moments ago was different from the way he’d held her in the car. That was passion. This was protection.

She couldn’t tell which she liked more, but it was amazing to have a pair of strong male arms about her. She hadn’t had that since her father’s death. Lately when she was having a gloomy day, Aaron tried to cheer her up, but he was just a boy. She needed the kind of security a full-grown man could offer.

Nia glanced down at the cat purring contentedly as Massimo reached a finger between the wires and stroked behind his black-tipped ears. He was almost six feet long from his orange colored nose with a black streak running the length of it, to his exceptionally long spotted tail. She’d guess he weighed close to two hundred pounds. He could have mauled her quite terribly, she thought, taking a brooding glance at Jabari’s broad head, powerful jaws, and strong teeth. Again, she was thankful for Massimo’s quick move to get between her and his cat.

“Squat down beside me and give me your hand,” Massimo said. “Don’t worry. He can’t harm you from inside the cage.”

Nia’s first instinct was to refuse, but remembering why she’d followed Massimo home, she reckoned it would play in her favor to make friends with his cat. It might even cause him to doubt his own suspicions about her. She squatted down beside him and placed her hand in his.

She held her breath as Massimo placed their entwined fingers against the wire and lined them up to Jabari’s nose. His breath was warm and moist on her fingertips and it caused a tingle along her spine. As she stared into his amber eyes, Nia felt as if she was staring at an old friend. “You’re a beautiful cat, Jabari Andretti. And it’s my pleasure to meet you.”

Jabari dropped his head on his paws and made a deep low growl in his throat. The sound was thrilling, almost erotic, and it generated a feeling of danger and uncertainty in Nia—the same danger and uncertainty she’d felt when Massimo had kissed her. It was as if he and his cat’s sexuality were morphed into one.

“He likes you,” Massimo said, smiling at her.

“He’s quite the charmer. Much like his owner,” she replied, withdrawing her hand from his. In an effort to avoid his intensely disturbing eyes, Nia glanced around the room. Skylights ran the length of the cathedral ceiling, allowing in patches of the fading afternoon light. The furnishings were comprised of posh dark brown leather sofas and chairs, marble tables, and Italian and Persian floor rugs. A fully equipped kitchenette and a small dining table on the far side of the room, overlooking the mountains completed the suite—a real bachelor’s pad that represented Massimo’s male dominance and power.

Involuntarily, her eyes were drawn to the mating leopards on the wall. The female was on her stomach with the powerful front paws of the male holding her captive against a bed of long grass. His sharp teeth were sunk into the back of her neck. Nia’s eyes grew wide when she noticed the dark streak that ran the length of the male’s nose.

She took a quick glance back at Jabari. The resemblance was undeniable. She glanced at Massimo and she felt the heat rising under her skin at the apparent amusement on his face.

“Yes, it is Jabari,” he said without hesitation. “I’ve been capturing all aspects of his life since he was a cub. Mating just happens to be one of them. It’s a basic animalistic act that we humans enjoy immensely. You’ll agree soon enough, cara.”

Perhaps, but not with you, she thought, even as she wondered if Massimo was in the habit of capturing himself in the act as well. Did he take pictures and make videos for his private collection? What would it be like to watch the two of them making love—the erotic sight of their bodies thrusting against each other, the sounds of their passionate moans echoing around the room? The thought caused a powerful ache between Nia’s legs, and she swallowed the low moan that threatened to erupt from her throat.

Massimo chuckled as he took in the look of embarrassment and desire on Nia’s face. She was the most sensual woman he’d ever met. Everything she did turned him on. He doubted she knew the effect she had on men. It was hard to believe she was still a virgin.

Massimo knew without a doubt that if he hadn’t promised Dafne not to take another lover before their wedding, at this very moment, Nia Sylk would be lying naked in his bed with her silken brown legs wrapped securely around his waist, their bodies moving in exquisite harmony as he rode her to the pinnacles of pleasure again and again. He knew too, that she was the kind of woman a man would find hard to leave, to purge from his system. He’d better not let her get too deeply embedded under his skin since he had other pressing obligations to fulfill.

He swore his heart laughed at his folly in thinking he would still go through with his plan to marry Dafne after the explosive desire that had seized him when he’d kissed Nia.

She was addictive.  He reached out and trailed a finger along her cheek. Her skin was so soft and smooth. “Como sei graziosa bella e molto dolce.Very beautiful and sweet. Indeed.

Nia had no idea what Massimo had said, but the magic in his touch and the husky tremor in his voice told her it was something passionate. Feeling the power in his fingertips tugging on her insides, she pulled away and stood up. 

Massimo Andretti took great pride in his ability to seduce women. His kind would say and do anything to encourage a woman to take off her clothes. He’d told her that he enjoyed the chase. And from his multiple short-lived relationships, it seemed as if that’s all he enjoyed.

She stepped back as Massimo stood up and spoke to Jabari. The cat leaped up, stretched like a lazy feline, and strolled to the back of the cage where he disappeared into a gargantuan kitty door.

“Is that Italian you were speaking to him?” Nia asked.

“Yes. He also understands English and Swahili.”

“Where did you learn to speak Swahili?”

“In a Masai village in Kenya.”

“Oh yeah, you did say you visit Kenya often to see Jabari, but what’s an Italian-American boy doing at a Masai village?”

Laughing, he raked his fingers through his hair. “You’re a curious little kitten, aren’t you?  I promise to tell you all about Kenya one day. And I’ll teach you Italian and Swahili, or any of the other three languages I speak, if you so desire.”

Teach her foreign languages? Was he hoping she’d stick around that long? “That might prove to be a most difficult feat. I have enough trouble with English as it is.”

“There is a language that requires no words although the mouth and tongue are fully engaged. I’m most anxious to teach you that language, Nia.”

Massimo’s husky voice hummed with titillating promises causing Nia’s heart to race so fast, her temples throbbed from the pulsation. Her mouth filled up with saliva as she glanced at an unopened door that led to the inner quarters of the master suit—the place where she would sleep next to Massimo for two long torturous nights until she made her escape.

She hoped she made it out unscathed.

* * *

Massimo savored his last spoonful of lobster bisque as he watched Nia finish off her second helping. He understood the enthusiasm with which she’d approached her dinner—rich, creamy, and loaded with calories as it was. Azi’s culinary skills were some of the best in the world. Ever since he was a little boy, he was always happy to come home to Azi’s kitchen.  There really was no cooking like home cooking.

Yet Massimo felt Nia would have displayed the same amount of zeal if she’d been served a less appetizing dish. It was a welcome change to watch a woman enjoy her food without giving a thought to the width of her waistline or her thighs.

He, on the other hand, was giving them a lot of thought. So much thought that while Nia was dressing for dinner, he’d put a call through to his friend, Paul Dawson, an FBI special agent in New York, and asked him to run a check on her.

He’d called Dafne to let her know that her move to the States was on hold.  He’d simply told her that something had come up. Boy, had something come up, he thought as his growing erection pulsed against his thigh. Dafne’s nonchalant response had reminded him that it might be three long years before he would enjoy the silky feel of a woman’s skin beneath his palm again.

That possibility didn’t sit well with Massimo. Not at all, he thought as Nia finally put her spoon down and gave him a smile that deepened his ache for her. She was so damned beautiful. He wondered if her appetite for sex would match the one she had for food. “You have a very healthy appetite,” he remarked over the rim of his wine glass.

Nia eyed Massimo through lowered lashes. The light of desire that illuminated his mellow blue eyes told her that he wasn’t just talking about her appetite for food. She’d felt him watching her as she finished off her second bowl of lobster bisque. She’d been tempted to stop halfway through it for etiquette’s sake, but God the bisque was the most delicious dish she’d ever tasted. And seeing that she wouldn’t be around to enjoy this kind of cooking for long, she’d taken her time enjoying it. She couldn’t care less if Massimo thought she was a pig.

“Do you always attack your food that way?” he asked, smiling as he twirled the long stem of his wine glass between his equally long fingers.

“They don’t serve food like this where I come from.” Nor where I’m going Nia thought of the island of Dulcina where Aaron was hiding out. It wouldn’t be a bad place to settle down once her business with Eddie and Massimo was behind her.

Her friend, Josie, a native of the island, had always tried to get her to visit, but the funds were never available for her to take a vacation. Josie had recently married her childhood sweetheart and moved back to Dulcina. Another friend, Amber, had found love on the island and moved there also.

Even Aaron seemed to have settled in and was enjoying himself in Paradise. During their Skype session last night, he’d talked about Josie’s father as if the man was some kind of super hero. It seemed that what Aaron needed all along was some bonding and masculine guidance—the one thing Nia could never give him.

Aaron had a bright future ahead of him, but he had to be alive and well in order to enjoy it.  Massimo’s million would secure both his safety and his future. Massimo owed them. If he’d held up his end of the bargain between Andretti Industries and West Gate Mills, her father wouldn’t have had to borrow money from Eddie. If he hadn’t lost the mill, her father would be alive today, and neither Aaron’s nor her safety would be an issue. 

“Brooklyn?”

“What?” Nia said as Massimo’s voice broke into her thoughts.

“They don’t serve food like this in Brooklyn you were saying?”

“Right.” She held out her glass for another refill of the wine Massimo had fished out of his underground wine cellar.

He picked up the bottle and filled up her glass. “You should go easy. This wine is very effective.  It’s been maturing for years.”

“I can hold my liquor.” Ignoring his warning, Nia took a long swallow from her glass, welcoming the cool feel of the white fruity liquid splashing against her throat. Nia had no idea how many glasses she’d consumed. She’d stopped counting at three.

“So what do you do there?”

“What do you mean?” she asked licking her lips slowly.

His eyes narrowed and he grunted softly. “I assume you have a job, a career of some sort?” 

“I teach math at a private school. I’m on winter break, just in case you’re wondering why I wasn’t in the classroom today,” she added.

“I suppose you’ve thought about resigning.”

“Why would I resign?” She planted her elbows on the table and, resting her chin in her hands, smiled sweetly at him.

“Well, you can’t very well be teaching in Brooklyn while you’re acting the role of my lover here in Granite Falls. Do the math.”

“I don’t plan on resigning, just taking a leave of absence.” An involuntary giggle spilled from her lips. “With your track record, I’ll probably be back at work in a week, anyway.”

His hearty laughter bounced off the walls of the dining room. “Well, I just assumed you’d resign seeing you’ll be a brand new multimillionaire once we consummate our agreement. I guess I’m a punda in that regard.”

Nia blinked several times and shifted uneasily on the chair. The wine was working its evil on her senses, affecting her ability to harness her tongue. If she weren’t careful, Massimo’s cleverly crafted questions would cause her to say something that would give her away.

She glanced at her half-empty glass on the table, then pushed it away, out of reach. “I love teaching,” she said, placing her hands on her lap. “I don’t see why I should give it up just because I’ll have money. I plan to save my millions for retirement.”

“Hmm. That’s a very good plan.  Be sure to invest it wisely.”

“I will.” She picked up her water glass and took a big long gulp from it.

He sat back and folded his arms across his chest, his face breaking into a sinister grin. Or perhaps she should say a profusion of sinister grins, since he seemed to be leering at her in multiple layers. Nia felt the sides of her mouth tremble as an unwarranted smile parted her lips.

Oh yeah, she was drunk. She raised a hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh.

“The thought of you as a schoolteacher turns me on,” he remarked, watching her closely.

“Just about anything in a dress turns you on, Massimo. Even a slippery snake slithering along in a grass skirt would get a rise out of you.” She giggled at the image of Massimo stealing stealthily behind a snake through a field of tall grass. What would he do with it once he caught it?

He joined her humor, chuckling heartily. “You turn me on, Nia Sylk. Everything you do, everything you say. The sound of your sexy voice, the sparkle in your beautiful brown eyes, the way you flip your wrists to tuck your hair behind your delicate ears. The way your slender fingers caress the stem of your wine glass, the way you walk, twisting your hips and sweet little backside just so.” He made a smooth undulating motion with his hands.

“And your breasts...” He shaped his palms to the size of two medium-size melons. “Mama, che belle tettone. Voluptuous, firm, and full, the way I like them on a woman. They fit perfectly in my hands, and I can’t wait to suck them into my mouth. Bellisima!” he exclaimed, placing his fingers to his lips and making a loud smacking sound with his mouth. He finished with that deft snap of his wrist Italians were famous for.

Nia crossed her arms in an effort to stop the throbbing of her swelling breasts and the hardening of her nipples against her lacy bra. “You have a two-track mind, Massimo Andretti. All you think about is sex and money.”

“Most women appreciate my mind, and soon you will too since our relationship is built on sex and money. Sex for money to be exact. Lots of sex for lots of money,” he added with a low throaty laugh.

Massimo’s dirty talk was causing all kinds of havoc to Nia’s system. She felt flushed and lightheaded and, unwittingly, she thought of the photo of Jabari in the act of mating. She felt like a female jungle cat that had been cornered by a persistent male. Like the cat, she had two options—run or mate. Since she couldn’t do either, Nia reached for her wine glass and finished the contents in one swallow.

She hated Massimo’s ability to arouse these unwanted and frustrating desires in her. And judging from the smile on his lips, she knew that he knew the effect the wine was having on her.  Massimo wasn’t the kind of man to pass up an opportunity, but she hoped he had enough scruples to resist the temptation to force himself on an intoxicated woman.

She hoped.

From his vast experience with the opposite sex, Massimo knew Nia was at the moment struggling to control the need to mate. How he was going to hold up his end of the bargain and not make love to her was a puzzle to him. Just the thought of having her in his bed and knowing he couldn’t take her was already driving him insane.

If he had any sense, he’d have Azi prepare one of the guest rooms and warn Nia to lock herself inside it. But he’d already laid down the law—they were sharing a bed—and so it would be.  Andrettis didn’t renege on their promises or their threats for that matter—not even when their lives depended on it.

As he watched Nia struggle with her feelings, Massimo knew it was time to bring the night to an end. The sooner they were both asleep, the safer she’d be from him. He’d already asked Azi to leave a pot of her magical tea in his suite. He didn’t trust himself with Nia, and he had no intentions of diving head first into something he knew nothing about. 

Until he heard back from Paul, he would have to find other ways to resist her. He knew Azi’s tea would work its magic in a matter of minutes. It was the same tea the Masai tribe had kept pouring down his throat when he’d had his unfortunate run-in with the rhino all those years ago. That tea, in a much more powerful dose than Azi’s, had kept him from going insane from the unbearable pain. It was the most effective natural sedative he knew. That tea may have also been responsible for the hallucinations he’d experienced about a pair of sparkling brown eyes that had kept his mind focused and off the excruciating pain.

He had to stop dwelling on the past when his present and his future were so unstable. “Would you like anything else, Nia?” he asked finishing the one glass of wine he’d been nursing all evening.

“Like what?”

“Tea.  Dessert. Azi makes a mean devil’s food cake. It’s my favorite indulgence.”

“I’m full,” she said patting her stomach. “But you are free to have some.” 

From the look she tossed him, Massimo was sure that in her mind, she’d tacked on Devil to the end of the sentence. “Andiamo a letto, poi. Let’s go to bed,” he translated for her benefit.

The trepidation in her eyes told Massimo that this was the moment Nia had been dreading since he told her they would be sharing a bed—sex or no sex. She’d been gulping down the eighty-thousand-dollar bottle of Romanee Conti all night in an effort to self-intoxicate and deter his advances.

He was never one to miss an opportunity where a slightly drunk but experienced woman was concerned, but he would never seduce an innocent inebriated girl—no matter how alluring she was. He could have told Nia that her drinking binge was unnecessary, but he’d gotten great pleasure from watching her simmer in her own sauce. He saw no harm in having a little fun with her before his impending nuptials next week. It might be the last time in three years he would have fun with a woman.

He rose and walked around the table to stand behind her chair. When his fingers brushed against the warm silkiness of her arm, she shuddered and gazed up at him. Her eyes were bewitching as they glimmered in the light from the fireplace and the wrought iron chandelier above the table. They haunted him. Where had he seen them?

“Vieni, cara,” he said, helping her to her feet. He would worry about her eyes tomorrow.

She wobbled a little as she stood up and Massimo immediately circled her waist to lend her support. Once she was steady, he followed her out into the corridor, staying close should she stumble, but far enough to admire the gentle curves of her hips and buttocks moving beneath her black knee-length dress.

He was now the proud owner of two gorgeous cats, he thought as he watched the glossy mane of straight black hair bounce against her back as she walked. Just as Jabari possessed the grace and charm of ultimate feline beauty, Nia displayed all the charisma of the quintessential female.

As he imagined Nia purring in pleasure beneath him, Massimo thought of calling Dafne again, this time to tell her that their arrangement was off. Ever since he met Nia, he’d been having trouble making a decision and sticking to it.

He would possess her. He would possess her not.

He’d never been this indecisive about anything in his entire life. He was known for making articulate and prudent decisions then following through until they passed or failed muster just like his ancestors before him.  It was the stick-to-itiveness upon which Andretti Industries prospered. Nia Sylk was slowly stripping him of that power.

“Massimo?” Nia turned and gazed up at him.

“Yes, pussycat?” His heart pounded against his chest when she licked her lips with her little pink tongue.

She stood on her tiptoes and draped her arms around his neck. “Would... would it be... wrong if I... I asked you to...  to kiss me?”

“No, pussycat. It wouldn’t be wrong at all.” He tucked strands of hair behind her ears.

She was so damned desirable.

He was so damned hard.

“I... I know I... asked you to wait... before we...  you know—”

Piccola, mia.” Massimo growled as his arms circled her. He’d promised to break his promise, only if she asked. Was she asking?

He should be flogged for the lewd images flowing through his head. The fact that she was drunk didn’t seem like much of a deterrent now against such pungent temptation. He was going to hell. God help him, he was already there. He eased her onto the elevator and drew her close, pressing her sweet, soft body into his. She felt absolutely divine, and smelled just as...  

 He bent his head and covered her tender waiting mouth with his, kissing her deeply and rapaciously. When they stepped off the elevator, Massimo led Nia down the hall toward his bedroom like a butcher leading an unsuspecting lamb to the slaughter.

Also in this series

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