Consequence of His Revenge
In debt to the billionaire…
Infamous Sicilian Dante Gallo takes great delight in firing Cami Fagan as punishment for her father’s theft. What he doesn’t expect is to desire her so intensely he can’t resist seducing her, and Dante soon discovers how deliciously innocent Cami really is!
And bound forever by his vengeance!
But what started as revenge could bind them forever when their inconvenient passion has long-lasting consequences…
“How could you fire me? I haven’t even started work yet!”
— Cameo Fagan, Consequence Of His Revenge
The spark of this story first came to life when I heard the Olympics were coming to Vancouver, probably in the early 2000’s. I knew my heroine was a downhill racer who’d been injured and the hero had a grudge against her.
I loved the idea of the hero blaming her for her father’s crime, ruining her life, only to learn she was innocent. Initially, he thought her father stole his design for an electric car, but when I finally came to write the story, that didn’t seem cutting edge enough. Dante is now an early visionary for self-driving cars.
I also have to give credit to a reader who wrote to me a few years ago and requested I write a Sicilian hero. I often plan my books out several titles in advance, but I have a corner of my whiteboard reserved for puzzle pieces like that. Tidbits that need to be fit into a book someday. Dante as a Sicilian was custom made for this story.
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Consequence of His Revenge
“How could you fire me? I haven’t even started work yet!”
Cameo Fagan tried to keep her voice to a hiss so it wouldn’t echo across the hotel lobby, but she couldn’t keep the panic out of her tone. She had already given up her job at the other hotel and, far worse, she had given up her apartment.
“Technically it’s a withdrawal of the offer of employment,” Karen hurried to say, holding out a splayed hand that begged for calm. She was the HR manager for the Tabor chain of boutique Canadian hotels. A mutual friend had put them in touch six months ago, when the renovations had been in full swing at this Whistler location. The Tabor was holding a soft opening on Monday with a gala for their official opening in two weeks.
Cami had thought she and Karen got on like a house on fire. She’d pretty much been hired on the spot.
“But…” She waved toward the narrow hall behind the front desk. It led to the offices and the very basic, but extremely affordable, staff quarters in the basement of the hotel. “I was going to move in this weekend.”
Karen gave her a helpless look. She knew as well as Cami did that apartments in Whistler were impossible to find, especially on short notice. “It wasn’t my decision. I’m really sorry.”
“Whose was it? Because I don’t understand.” Don’t cry, she willed herself. The universe did not have a plan to constantly pull the rug every time things started to go her way. She refused to think like that.
Even though it often felt exactly like that.
Karen glanced around the lobby where a handful of decorators were measuring and holding up swatches while workmen were putting the finishing touches on the fireplace mantel.
Lowering her voice even more, Karen said, “It hasn’t been announced yet, but Tabor was bought out by an Italian firm. I guess the previous owners were in trouble after all of this.” She lifted her gaze to the mural painted on the ceiling, one of many high-end touches included in the refurbishment.
That indication of deep pockets was why Cami had been willing to give up her very good job and take a chance here. Now her stomach clenched.
Italian? Or Sicilian?
“Are the new owners starting from scratch with the hiring? Because I’ll interview again. I don’t mind.”
Karen’s shoulders fell and she shifted uncomfortably. “It was, um, you he didn’t want. Specifically.”
“Me!” Cami’s references were stellar, her work ethic highly praised. She went the extra mile every time. “He thinks I’m too young?” She’d run into that before, but when she explained how much experience she had, she was usually given a chance. It couldn’t be sexism. Karen seemed to be keeping her management position.
“I’m really sorry.” Karen looked and sounded sincere. “I don’t understand it myself, but I submitted the list of hires and yours was the only name he scratched. He was quite adamant.”
“Who?” Cami didn’t want to believe she could still be haunted by the Gallos, but her heart was plummeting into her shoes. The universe didn’t have it in for her. Nor did the Italians. One Sicilian seemed to, though.
The elevator pinged, cutting off whatever Karen was about to say. Her gaze slid to the opening doors. “Him,” Karen said. “Dante Gallo.”
Cami didn’t have to ask which man Karen meant. Everyone in the group wore smart business attire, but one wore his bespoke suit with more assertiveness and style on a frame that was tall and alpha-postured. His jaw had a shadow of sculpted stubble and his dark hair was close-cropped, but devilish. His stern brows and sharp gaze stole any hint of approachability from his otherwise beautiful features. He was both gorgeous and severe. The kind of man used to getting his way by any means necessary, powerful and confident enough to make life-altering decisions in a blink. The women trailing him were flushed and sparkly-eyed, the men awestruck and quick-stepping, anxious to please.
Cami was awestruck herself, even feeling a coil of something in her abdomen that was sensual and wicked and wrong, especially when his predatory attention swiveled to her the way a hawk’s head turned when a hare caught its attention.
Her heartbeat picked up as his focus honed in.
The entire planet stopped spinning as their gazes clashed. Or, rather, she felt as though they were caught in some kind of time slip. Everything continued to whirl around them in a whistling blur while thick amber soaked in, filling her veins with a honeyed sweetness that held them suspended in a muted world. Her vision dimmed at the edges, glowing golden. She stopped breathing. Something ancient resonated in her, a vibration as old as life itself.
That internal quiver expanded. Sensual warmth suffused her in a way that had never happened. She told herself this acute awareness of self and him was the heat of surprised recognition and anticipation of a confrontation. Animosity, not attraction. She had stalked him a couple of times online and had imagined a face-to-face conversation a million times. This was shock at finally having her opportunity, not fascination.
Definitely not desire pinching a betraying sting between her thighs.
She clawed back from her lack of self-control and found her resolve. This time, she wouldn’t be leveled without a whimper of protest. Maybe he had a right to be angry with her father, but this grudge had gone on long enough. Did he really think he could destroy her just because of her name?
As her pulse beat a war drum in her ears, she waited for recognition to dawn in his features.
It didn’t come, which was insult to injury. Her confidence began to waver while tendrils of vulnerability crept in.
Then she realized his gaze was heating with interest. Male interest. His forbidding mouth relaxed the way a man’s did when a woman invited him to approach because attraction was reciprocated.
The sizzle under her skin became a conflagration, heating her all over, teaching her by fire that she was part of the human race after all. She did a lot of people-watching from behind her hospitality counters and was always intrigued by the way people coupled up. It baffled her because she had never felt such a simple and immediate pull herself. A receptiveness that couldn’t be hidden.
Today, it happened. Basic animal magnetism took hold of her, shocking in its power because it was completely against her will. Mortifying, since she was the one providing the entertainment for Karen and anyone else who wanted to notice. She was sending all the wrong signals with her dumbfounded, dazzled stare, but her gaze was glued to his.
A slither of defenselessness went through her. She didn’t want to react this way! Trolling online hadn’t prepared her for the force of masculinity that came off him, though. He made her ultra-aware of her femininity. Her body made tiny adjustments, standing taller, stomach tightening. Her fingers itched to touch her hair.
The reaction was as disarming as he was, causing a fresh shyness to burn her cheeks.
Nerves, she insisted to herself. Pique. Genuine frustration at losing the job she had thought would finally give her the chance to get ahead. All because of him, she reminded herself, and used her animosity to grapple past her overwhelmed senses. And yes, maybe she owned some of the responsibility for his grudge, but no. She had tried really hard to fix things. Enough was enough.
She forced herself to step one foot in front of the other, advancing on the lion whose tail was flicking in lazy concentration. He looked entirely too powerful and ferocious. Too hungry. Each step brought her into a light and heat that threatened to sear her to her soul, but she ignored the adrenaline and excitement coursing through her arteries.
While he wore a hint of a smug smile because she was approaching him and not making him work for it.
“Mr. Gallo.” Her voice seemed to fade as she spoke. She had to clear her throat. “Might I have a word?”
No one had spoken to him in such an imperative tone since he was a child. Dante bristled, but the reflexive assertion of superiority that rose to his lips didn’t emerge.
Like most men, he categorized women very quickly into yes, no, or off-limits. Wedding ring? No. Coworker? Off-limits—for now.
Neatly packaged brunette with skin like fresh cream, a figure that didn’t stop, and rose petal lips that managed to hold a curve of innocence and sin at the same time? One who moved with a dancer’s grace and possessed the strength of character to look him in the eye without flinching?
“Yes” wasn’t a strong enough word. She was a new category. Have to have. Mine.
That lightning-quick bite of hunger was disturbing. He had a healthy sex drive—very healthy—but one he easily controlled, always relegating it to nonwork hours.
Yet with this woman his brain switched off, and his libido quickened in anticipation. Why? He searched for what made her different. Her clothes were low-end, but well-chosen to showcase her figure. Her breasts bounced a little, ample and firm, making him wonder about her bra. Lace? Demi-cup? Her round hips promised a nice plump ass atop those trim thighs, making the words, “Turn around,” simmer in his throat.
The particular shade of plum of her blazer framed a thin, white line against her collarbone. A scar? A twist of protectiveness went through him. He had a strong impulse to brush back her rich, dark hair and kiss that spot. Make it better.
Embers of desire glowed hotter in his belly, thinking of the ways he would pet her and stroke her until neither of them knew anything but pleasure. Until they drowned in it. He liked the look of her wavy tresses. The spill of her hair moving as she walked. No hairspray. He could run his hands through that shiny fall, gather those silky strands in his fist as he held her still for a kiss that would appease and ignite…
Damn. He was going to tent his pants if he wasn’t careful. She was only a woman. They weren’t hard to come by. Never had been. He was here to work and indulge his grandmother, not take up with a local for after-hours fun. His entire world was one of responsibility and duty to his extended family. Selfishness was not an option. Hadn’t been since his youthful foray into chasing a personal dream had exploded in his face, cracking the very foundation of his family’s existence.
For the first time in a long time, however, he saw something he wanted strictly for himself. Not that he saw her as a thing—although he was barbarian enough to experience a certain titillation at the idea of owning a woman—but there was more. As she paused before him, potential hovered between them, too abstract to grasp, too real to ignore.
He forced his gaze to her face, trying to work out why her pretty, but not particularly striking features were impacting him so deeply. The women he usually went for were socialites. They wore layers of makeup that enhanced their features to the highest degree, and invited him with seductive smiles. They oozed sophistication and a desire to please.
This one was a natural beauty with lovely arched brows and a tipped-up nose. Her bare face made her look rather innocent while her eyes were a pedestrian hazel arranged in a starburst of brown within a circle of gray-green.
When had he ever looked so closely at anyone’s eyes before?
When had he ever seen such a gamut of emotion? On her, they truly were windows to the soul. He read intimidation and bravery and something that made him think of butter and honey melting on his tongue.
He had an urge to laugh, not in dismissal, but enjoyment. So few people challenged or excited him these days.
“Let’s go into my office.” He waved at what would be the manager’s office after he was satisfied this investment would turn a profit. His cousin, Arturo, was quite the vulture for deals like this, and usually handled the transition of a buyout. Once Arturo had heard their grandmother wished to tag along, however, his calendar had suffered a conflict.
Dante hadn’t thought much of Arturo’s priorities, but rather than scold him, he’d opted for taking the opportunity to spend a few days with the woman who had raised him—a woman he reluctantly acknowledged wasn’t immortal.
She was supposed to be here soon, for a tour and lunch he recalled with distraction, glancing at the clock and feeling a pull of priorities. In this moment, this younger, nubile woman captured nearly all of his attention.
He closed the door. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” He held out his hand, palm itching for the feel of her in his grip. He might never let her go.
Her chin set and she took his hand in a firm, no-nonsense shake that was surprisingly powerful, sending a thrill rocketing through him. He wanted to tighten his grip and hang on. Pull her in and race to the inevitable.
When she spoke, he was too nearly lost in the clear, engaging tone of her voice to make sense of the words.
“I’m Cameo Fagan. Your new manager.”
Her name ricocheted inside his skull, tearing holes in his psyche. All of his assumptions about her, where they might be going and how their association would progress, became a tattered mess. In the blink of an eye, ten years dissolved. He was watching his competitor announce a self-driving car that bore shocking resemblance to the one Dante was creating. All the money and time he had invested evaporated. The shock of the loss put the final stressor on his grandfather’s heart, and it gave out.
Dante was left with an enormous hole in the family finances, extensive dependents looking to him to take up the charge and a bitterness of betrayal that sat on his tongue to this day.
He dropped his hand, so appalled with the way her soft heat left an imprint in his palm he brushed it against his thigh.
She flinched, and her erotic mouth trembled briefly before she firmed it, setting her chin a notch higher.
He waited for his sexual interest to fizzle. And waited. But the No that screamed through him was his inner animal, howling in protest at being denied. His libido wanted her. The rest of him recoiled in disgust. How could he be the least bit attracted to a Fagan?
“You’re not to be on this property.” He had made that clear after seeing her name on the list of new hires. One email to his office in Milan had confirmed she was related to the Stephen Fagan. That had been that. Her father had betrayed him. He wouldn’t trust another one of them ever again.
He reached for the door latch, ready to expel her, distantly anticipating the physical struggle if it came to that.
She didn’t move, only folded her arms, which plumped her breasts. “I don’t know how they do things in Italy, but this is Canada. We have laws against wrongful dismissal.”
He left the door closed, frustration morphing into fury. A desire to crush. He’d never met anyone who had lit his fuse as quickly or made it burn so hot. White and blistering. But he kept his tone icy cold.
“Italy has laws against theft. Most go to jail for it. Some, apparently, escape to Canada before they’re convicted. Perhaps I should take that up with your government.”
Her breath sucked in and her pulse throbbed rapidly in her throat. Her eyes were hot and bright. Tears? Ha.
“You’re being paid back,” she said through clenched teeth. “That can’t happen if I don’t have a job, can it?”
“Even if that were true, it wouldn’t make sense for me to give you money so you could give it back to me, would it? No gain in that for me.”
“What do you mean, ‘even if it were true’?” She dropped her fists to her sides.
“Let’s pretend such a thing as compensation is even possible, since the design of my self-driving car had potential to earn indefinitely, but I’ve never seen a red cent from anyone, so—”
“Where has it been going, then?”
The sharpness of her tone sent a narrow sliver of doubt through him, thin as a fiber of glass, but sharp enough to sting because he almost fell for her outrage. He very nearly wanted to believe her, his body was that primed for her on a physical level.
But that was a Fagan for you. They could make you believe anything.
He shook off his moment of hesitation with a snap of his head. Trust led to treachery. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, trust her.
“Don’t pretend your father has made any effort to compensate me. He hasn’t. He can’t.”
That took her aback. Her complexion faded to gray, sending a brief shadow of concern through him.
“Of course he can’t.” Her brows pulled into a distressed knot. “He’s dead.”
She looked from one of his eyes to the other, expression twisted in confusion, as if she thought he ought to know that.
He didn’t keep tabs on a man who had cost him a fortune and set his family back, leaving him at his most vulnerable. Dante was so furious at her temerity, at her attempt to work another con on him, and with himself for being momentarily drawn by her, he let one vicious word escape.
It was far below him. He knew it even before her lips went white. Her mouth pulled at the corners as she tried to hold on to her composure, but those wide, far from plain Jane eyes of hers grew so dark and wounded, he couldn’t look into them.
“You’ve done me a favor,” she said with a creak in her voice. “I’d rather starve than work for someone who could say something like that.”
She moved to open the door, but his hand was still on the latch. Her body heat mingled with his own, charging the air. The scent of fresh mountain air and wildflowers filled his brain, making him drunk.
“Let me out.”
He saw the words form on her pink lips more than heard them. They rang in his head in a fading echo. He didn’t want to. The encounter had become so intense, so fast, he was reeling, not sure if he’d won or lost. Either way, it didn’t feel over.
Cold fingertips touched the back of his hand. Her elbow caught him in the ribs before she pushed down and pulled the door open, head ducked. Her body almost touched his. He thought he heard a sniff, then he was staring at her ass—which was even more spectacular than he’d imagined.
He slammed the door closed behind her, trying to also slam the door on his impossible desire for her. On the entire scene.
There was no reason he should feel guilty. The wrong her father had done him had been malicious and far-reaching. Dante had foolishly dropped the charges in exchange for an admission of guilt and a promise of compensation, letting the man escape because, at the time, his life had been imploding. His grandfather’s sudden death had meant Dante had to set aside his own pursuits and take over the complex family business. Its interests ran from vineyards to hotels to exports and shipping.
All of that had been put in jeopardy by the loss of the seed capital his grandfather had allowed him to risk on his self-driving car dream. The consequence of trusting wrongly had been a decade of struggle to find an even keel and come back to the top—yet another reason he wanted to give his grandmother some attention. He had neglected her while he worked to regain everything she and her husband had built.
Cami Fagan ought to be grateful all he had done was refuse to hire her.
Nevertheless, that broken expression of hers lingered in his mind’s eye. Which annoyed him.
He snarled that he didn’t want to be disturbed, then flicked the lock on the door.
Cami was shaking so hard, she could barely walk. She could barely breathe. Each pant came in as a hiss through her nose and released in a jagged choke.
Get away was the imperative screaming through her, but she could hardly see, she was so blinded by tears of grief and outrage. Good? Good? Had he really said that? What a bastard!
She was so wrapped up in her anguish, she almost missed the faint voice as she charged past an old woman sitting on a bench, half a block from the Tabor’s entrance.
Despite drowning in emotion, Cami stopped. She and her brother always stopped, whether it was a roadside accident or a panhandler needing a sandwich.
Swiping at her wet cheeks, she raked herself together. “Yes? What’s wrong?”
“Ajutu, pi fauri.”
Cami had a few words in a dozen languages, all the better to work with the sort of international clientele who visited destinations like Whistler. In her former life, she’d even spent time with Germans and Italians, picking up conversational words, not that she’d used much beyond the very basics in recent years.
Regardless, help was fairly universal, and the old woman’s weakly raised hand was self-explanatory.
“I’m sorry, do you speak English? Qu’est-ce que c’est?” No, that was French and the woman sounded Italian, maybe? “Che cos’ è?”
The woman rattled out some breathless mumbles, but Cami caught one word she thought she understood. Malatu. Sick. Ill.
She seated herself next to the woman, noting the senior was pressing a hand to her chest, struggling to speak.
“I’m calling an ambulance. We’ll get you to the hospital,” Cami told her, quickly pulling out her mobile. “Ambulanza. Ospedale.” One didn’t race with champions down the Alps without hearing those words a few times.
She could have gone back into the Tabor and asked Karen to call, but she had her first-aid certificate, and this was exactly the type of thing she’d been doing since her first housekeeping position at a motel. The woman was conscious, if frightened and very pale. Cami took her pulse and tried to keep her calm as she relayed as much information as she could to the dispatcher. With the woman’s permission, she was able to check her purse and provide the woman’s name along with some medication she was taking.
“Do you have family traveling with you? Can I leave a message at your hotel?”
Bernadetta Ferrante pointed toward the Tabor, which sent a little shiver of premonition through Cami, but what were the chances? Dante Gallo seemed to be traveling with an entourage. Bernadetta could be related to anyone in there.
She asked a passerby to run into the hotel to find Bernadetta’s companion, then pointed into the sky as she heard the siren. “Ambulanza,” she said again. “It will be here soon.”
Bernadetta nodded and smiled weakly, fragile fingers curling around Cami’s.
“What the hell have you done?” The male voice was so hard and fierce, it made both of them jump.
Cami briefly closed her eyes. Of course it was him. What were the chances of two head-on collisions in a row?
Bernadetta put up a hand, expression anxious.
Dante said, “Non tu, Noni,” in a much gentler tone, before he returned to the gruff tone and said, “I’m speaking to her.”
The ambulance arrived at that moment. Cami hovered long enough to ensure she wasn’t needed to give a statement, then slipped away. Bernadetta was already looking better, eyes growing less distressed as she breathed more easily beneath an oxygen mask, while Dante left to fetch his car and follow to the hospital.
Cami trudged through the spitting spring rain to the next bus stop, only wanting distance from that infernal man. At least the crisis had pulled her out of her tailspin. Tears never fixed anything. She had learned that a long time ago. What she needed was a new plan. While she waited for the bus, she texted her brother.
My job fell through. Can I sleep on your couch?
Making cookies was the perfect antidote to a night of self-pity and a morning of moving boxes. Besides, she had a few staples to use up and a neighbor to thank.
When the knock sounded, she expected Sharma from down the hall. She opened her door with a friendly smile, cutting off her greeting at, “Hell—”
Because it wasn’t Sharma. It was him.
Dante Gallo stood in her doorway like an avenging angel, his blue shirt dotted by the rain so it clung damply across his broad shoulders. He was all understated wealth and power, with what was probably real gold in his belt buckle. His tailored pants held a precision crease that broke over shiny shoes that had to be some custom-crafted Italian kind that were made from baby lambs or maybe actual babies.
Oh, she wanted to feel hatred and contempt toward him. Only that. She wanted to slam the door on him, but even as her simmering anger reignited, she faltered, caught in that magnetism he seemed to project. Prickling tension invaded her. Her nipples pinched, and that betraying heat rolled through her abdomen and spread through her inner thighs, tingling and racing.
Woman. Man. How did he make that visceral distinction so sharp and undeniable within her? Everything in her felt obvious and tight. Overwhelmed.
Hungry and needy and yearning.
She hated herself for it, was already suffering a kick of anguish even as his proprietary gaze skimmed down her, stripping what little she wore. The oven had heated up her tiny studio apartment to equatorial levels, so she had changed into a body-hugging tank and yoga shorts. Her abdomen tensed further under the lick of his gaze.
Stupidly, she looked for an answering thrust of need piercing his shell, but he seemed to feel nothing but contempt. It made that scan of his abrasive and painful, leaving her feeling obvious and callow. Defenseless and deeply disadvantaged.
Rejected, which left a burn of scorn from the back of her throat to the pit of her belly.
She should have slammed the door, but the timer went off, startling her. With emotion searing her veins, she made a flustered dive toward the oven and pulled out the last batch of cookies, leaving the tray on the stove top with a clatter.
Pulling off the mitt, she skimmed the heel of her hand across her brow. What was he even doing here? Yesterday’s interaction had been painful enough. She didn’t need him invading her private space, judging and disparaging.
She snapped the oven off and turned to see him shut the door as if she had invited him in. He stood behind the door, trapping her inside the horseshoe of her kitchenette.
Her heart began thudding even harder, not precisely in fear—which was frightening in itself. Excitement. How could part of her be thrilled to see him again? Forget the past. He was a cruel, callous person. Good. She hated him for that. Truly hated him.
She didn’t ask how he’d got in the building. She wasn’t the only one moving this weekend. The main door had been propped open the whole time she’d been loading boxes into Sharma’s car and taking them to the small storage locker she’d rented.
This felt like an ambush nonetheless. What other awful thing had he said to her yesterday? She set aside her oven mitts and said, “You’re not welcome on this property.”
He dragged his gaze back from scanning her near empty apartment. His eyes looked deeply set and a little bruised, but she didn’t imagine he’d lost sleep over her.
A weird tingle sizzled in her pelvis at the thought, though. She’d tossed and turned between fury and romantic fantasies, herself. He was ridiculously attractive, and this reaction of hers was so visceral. In her darkest hour, she hadn’t been able to resist wondering, if they didn’t hate each other, what would that look like?
Tangled sheets and damp skin, hot hands and fused mouths. Fused bodies? What would that feel like?
Not now. Definitely not him.
She folded her arms, hideously aware she only had a thin shelf bra in this top, and her breasts felt swollen and hard. Prickly. If she had had a bedroom, she would have shot into it and thrown on more clothes. Her chest was a little too well-endowed to get away with something so skimpy anywhere but alone in her apartment, especially when her nipples were standing up with arousal.
She became hyperaware of how little she wore. How close he stood and how small her space was. The studio apartment ought to feel bigger, stripped to its bare bones—a convertible sofa that had been here when she moved in, along with an oval coffee table, a standing lamp and a battered computer desk. All that remained of her own possessions was an open backpack and the sleeping bag she was taking to her brother’s. The emptied space felt airless and hollow, yet bursting with tension. Like her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked when he didn’t respond to her remark.
“My grandmother would like to thank you.”
Could he say it with more disdain?
“Is she…” She took in the signs of a rough night, suddenly gripped by worry. “I called the hospital. They don’t share much if you’re not family, but said she’d been released. I thought that meant she was recovered.”
“Good.” She relaxed slightly. “What happened?”
“Asthma. She hasn’t had an attack in years so didn’t bring her inhaler.”
There was definitely something wrong with Cami because even though he took a tone that suggested speaking to her was beneath him, his accent and the subtle affection and concern in his tone made his talk of asthma and an inhaler sound ridiculously kind and endearing. Sexy.
The heat of the oven was cooking her brain.
“Well, I’m glad she’s all right. I didn’t realize she was your grandmother—”
What now? Her brain screeched like a needle scraping vinyl. It struck her that a tiny part of her had wondered if he was here to apologize. Or thank her himself. Wow. How incredibly deluded of her.
It made her ridiculous reaction to him all the more unbearable. Of all the things she hated about him, the way he kept making her feel such self-contempt was the worst. She normally liked herself, but he made her mistrust herself at an integral level. He said these awful things to her and she still felt drawn. It was deeply unnerving. Painful.
“No,” she pronounced in a voice jagged by her turmoil. “I didn’t. And yes, before you ask.” She held up a hand. “I would have helped her even if I’d known she was related to you. I don’t assume people are guilty by association and treat them like garbage for it.”
She had to avert her gaze as that came out of her mouth, never quite sure if she could truly claim her father was innocent. He had signed an admission of guilt, that much she knew, but had told her brother he was innocent. If he was guilty, was it her fault he’d stolen Dante’s proprietary work and sold it to a competitor? She just didn’t know. The not knowing tortured her every single day.
It made her uncertain right now, one bare foot folding over the other, when she wanted to sound confident as she stood her ground. Her culpability was reflected in her voice as she asked, “How could I know she was related to you? You don’t even have the same last name.”
“Sicilian women keep their names.” He frowned as though that was something everyone should know, then shrugged off her question. “I’m not on social media much, but she is. It wouldn’t take more than a single search of my name to pull up our connection.”
“It would take a desire to do so, and why would I want to?”
“You tell me. Why did your father target me in the first place? Money? Jealousy? Opportunity? You knew who I was yesterday. You must have looked me up at some point.”
Further guilt snaked through her belly. Had she been intrigued by him even then? Not that she had admitted to herself, but how could she not want to know more about a man who had such power over her and remained so out of reach?
“Maybe I did.” She tried a shrug and a negligent shake of her head, but only managed to loosen her ponytail. She grabbed at it, dragging his gaze to her breasts, raking her composure down another notch. Challenging him was a mistake. It was an exercise in bashing herself against bulletproof glass with no hope of reaching whatever was inside. She knew that from the few times she had been desperate enough to try getting in touch, to plead her case, only to be shut out.
At least she was in a better place these days, even though it was still a precarious one. Her brother was looking after himself now, if barely scraping by under student loans. Her being jobless and homeless didn’t mean he would be without food and shelter, as well. She actually had a place to go to now that her own life had imploded again.
That meant she didn’t have anything left to lose in standing up to Dante. She dropped her arms and lifted her chin.
“Are you accusing me of somehow causing your grandmother’s asthma so I could call for treatment?”
“No. But I think you recognized her and took advantage of an opportunity.”
“To do what? Be kind? Yes. Guilty!”
“To get on my good side.”
“You have one?”
He didn’t move, but his granite stillness was its own threat, one that made a dangerous heat coil through her middle and sent her pulse racing.
“You haven’t seen my bad one. Yet.” Then, in a surprisingly devastating move, he added, “Cami.”
She felt hammered to the floor then, all of her reverberating with the impact of his saying her name. A flash in his eyes told her he knew exactly how she was reacting, which made it all the more humiliating.
Sharma chose that moment to knock, forcing her to collect her bearings. Cami had to brush by him, which caused him to move farther into her apartment. Her whole body tingled with awareness, mind distracted by thoughts of his gaze touching her few things, casting aspersions over them. Why did she even care how little he thought of her?
“Hi,” Sharma said with a big smile.
Cami had actually forgotten between one moment and the next who she was expecting. Her own baffled, “Hi,” reflected how out of sorts she was, making Sharma give her a look of amused curiosity.
“Everything okay? Oh, you have company.” Intrigue lit her gaze, and she waved at Dante. “Hi. Are you our new neighbor?”
Cami caught back a choke. The Dante Gallos of the world didn’t live in places like this. He’d probably wipe his feet on the way out.
“He’s just visiting.” Flustered, she set a brown bag of cookies on a small box of dishes she wasn’t keeping, but that Sharma’s young family might find useful, and returned Sharma’s keys at the same time. “Thanks for the car today.”
“It was bad enough you were moving out of the building. You can’t leave town,” Sharma said, making a sad face as she accepted the box. “What happened with the job?”
“I’ll explain later.” Cami waved a hand to gloss past the question, not willing to get into it with the demigod of wrath looming behind her, skewering her so hard with his bronze laser vision she felt it like a pin in her back. She was a butterfly, squirming under his concentrated study, caught and dying for nothing because her plain brown wings wouldn’t even hold his attention for long.
Sharma’s gaze slid over to him and back as if she knew Dante had something to do with it. “Okay, well, nice to meet you.” She waved at Dante, then said to Cami, “Gotta run to get Milly, but say goodbye before you leave.”
As she closed the door, Cami ran through all the should-have-saids she’d conjured last night, as she had replayed her interchange with Dante in his office. Through it all, she had wished she could go back and change a decade’s worth of history, all to no avail.
No matter what threats he was making, however, she knew this was a chance to salvage something. To appeal to whatever reasonable side he might possess. Maybe. Or not. Perhaps talking to him would make matters worse.
Still, she had to make him see she was trying to make amends and hopefully ease this grudge he had. It was killing her on every level; it really was.
As Dante waited out Cami Fagan’s chat with her neighbor, his brain was still clattering with all the train cars that had derailed and piled up, one after another, starting with the news her father was dead—which had been strangely jarring.
Initially, before their association had gone so very wrong, he’d looked on Stephen Fagan as a sort of mentor. Dante’s grandfather had been a devoted surrogate after Dante’s father died, and an excellent businessman willing to bet on his grandson, but he hadn’t had the passion for electronics that Dante possessed.
He’d found that in Stephen, which was why he had trusted him so implicitly and felt so betrayed by his crime. Maybe he’d even believed, in the back of his mind, that one day he would have an explanation from the man he’d thought of as a friend. Damaging as the financial loss had been, the real cost had been his faith in his own judgment. How had he been so blind? Something in him had always longed for a chance to hear Stephen’s side of it, to understand why he would do something so cold when Dante had thought they were friends.
Hearing Stephen was dead had been… Well, it hadn’t been good, despite his claim otherwise. It had been painful, stirring up the other more devastating loss he’d suffered back then. All the losses that had come at once.
As he’d been processing that he would never get answers from Stephen, someone had knocked insistently, informing him his grandmother was unwell. Rushing outside, what had he found?
In the confusion, she’d slipped away, but she’d stayed on his mind all the while his grandmother was treated. The moment she had recovered, his grandmother became adamant that she thank the young woman who had helped her.
Back when she’d been grieving the loss of her husband, Dante hadn’t dared make things worse by revealing how he’d put the family’s security in jeopardy. It was one of the reasons he hadn’t pressed charges against Stephen—to keep his grandmother and the rest of the family from knowing the extent of their financial woes. He hadn’t wanted anyone worrying more than they already were.
Instead, with the help of his cousin, he’d worked like a slave to bring them back from the brink.
That silence meant Noni didn’t understand why he was so skeptical of Cami’s altruism. He didn’t want to tell her he would rather wring Cami’s neck than buy her a meal, but he wasn’t about to let his grandmother go hunting all over town for her good Samaritan, possibly collapsing again. He also sure as hell wasn’t going to give Cami a chance to be alone with his grandmother again. Who knew what damage would be done this time?
So, after a restless night and a day of putting it off, he’d looked up her address from her CV and had come here. He’d walked up the stairs in this very dated building, wondering what sort of debts her father had paid off since he clearly hadn’t left much for his daughter, and knocked.
Then Smash! She had opened the door, plunging him into a blur of pale pink top that scooped low enough to reveal the upper swells of her breasts and thin enough her nipples pressed enticingly against it. Her red shorts were outright criminal, emphasizing her firm thighs and painting over her mound in a way that made his palm itch to cup there. The bright color stopped mere inches below that, covering the top end of a thin white scar that scored down past her knee.
He’d barely processed the old injury when she whirled away in response to a buzzer. The fabric of her shorts held a tight grip on her ass as she turned and bent to retrieve something from the oven, making his mouth water and his libido rush to readiness.
He had spent the night mentally flagellating himself for being attracted to her at all, let alone so intensely. Cami was beyond off-limits. She was a hard No. Whatever he thought he might have seen in the first seconds of their meeting had been calculated on her part. Had to have been.
She had known who he was.
And now he knew who she was, so how could he be physically attracted to someone who should repel him? It was untenable.
Yet the stir in his groin refused to abate.
She turned from closing the front door, and her wholesome prettiness was an affront. A lie. He curled his fist and tried not to react when she crossed her arms again, plumping that ample bosom of hers in a most alluring way. Deliberately?
“I don’t know how to convince you that I had no ulterior motive yesterday, but I didn’t.” Her lips remained slightly parted, as though she wanted to say more but was waiting to see how he reacted first.
“You can’t. She wants you to come to the hotel anyway. To thank you. Not the Tabor. The one where we’re staying.”
Surprise flickered across her face, then wariness. “And you’re here to intimidate me all over again? Tell me not to go anywhere near her?”
“I’m here to drive you.” Was she intimidated? She wasn’t acting like it. “But it’s true I don’t want you near her. That’s why I’ll supervise.”
“Ha. Fun as that sounds—” She cut herself off with a choked laugh. Her ironic smile invited him to join in the joke, then faded when he didn’t.
Something like hurt might have moved behind her eyes, but she disguised it with a sweep of her lashes, leaving him frustrated that he couldn’t read her as easily as he wanted to.
She moved into the kitchen to transfer the last batch of cookies onto the cooling rack. “Too bad you didn’t put it off until Monday. I would have been gone. Tell her I’ve left town.”
He moved to stand on the other side of the breakfast bar, watching her.
Such a domestic act, baking cookies. This didn’t fit at all with the image he’d built in his mind of her family living high off his hard work and innovation. Nothing about her fit into the boxes he’d drawn for Fagans and women, potential hires or people who dined with his family. Nothing except…
“Unlike you, I don’t lie, especially to people I care about.”
“Boy, you love to get your little digs in, don’t you? When did I lie to you?”
When she’d mentioned he was being paid back, for starters, but, “Forget it. I’m not here to rehash the past. I’ve moved on.” Begrudgingly and with a dark rage still livid within him.
“Really,” she scoffed in a voice that held a husk. Was it naturally there? An emotional reaction to his accusation? Or put there to entice him? “Is that why you fired me without even giving me a chance? Is that why you said it was ‘good’ that my father is dead? My mother died in the same crash. Do you want to tell me how happy you are to hear that news?” The same emotive crack as yesterday charged her tone now, and her eyes gleamed with old agony.
He wanted to write her off as melodramatic, make some kind of sharp comeback so she wouldn’t think she could get away with dressing him down, but his chest tightened. Whatever else had happened, losing one’s parents was a blow. He couldn’t dismiss that so pitilessly.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he allowed, finding his gaze dropping to the scar etched onto her collarbone. She had that longer one on her leg, too. Had she been in the accident? He tried to recall what he had known about Stephen Fagan’s family, but came up with a vague recollection of a wife and a forgotten number of children.
Why did he find the idea of her being injured so disturbing? Everything about this woman put him on uneven ground. He hated it. There was already a large dose of humiliation attached to her father’s betrayal. He’d been soaked in grief over losing his grandfather, but guilt, as well. The old man had loved him. Indulged him. And Dante had failed so very badly, even contributing to his grandfather’s death with his mistake.
An acrid lump of self-blame still burned black and hot within him. He had had to take that smoldering coal in hand, shape and harden it with an implacable grip, and pull himself into the future upon it.
Since then, nothing happened without his will or permission. He was ruled by sound judgment, not his libido or his temper. Certainly not his personal desires. Yet anger had got the better of him yesterday. She had. And emotion was threatening to take him over again today, especially when she muttered, “No. You shouldn’t have.”
The utter gall of her was mind-blowing.
She clattered the cookie sheet and spatula into the sink. Her ponytail was coming loose, allowing strands of rich mink and subtle caramel with tiny streaks of ash to fall around her face. It gave her a delicate air that he had to consciously remind himself was a mirage. That vestige of grief in her expression might be real, but the flicker of helplessness was not. Fagans landed on their feet.
“Look,” he said, more on edge than he liked. “Helping my grandmother was a nice gesture, but I’m not giving you back that job, if that’s what you were after.”
She lifted her head. “It was a coincidence!” She dropped some cookies into a brown paper bag and offered it to him. “Here. Tell her I’m glad she’s feeling better.” Her hand tremored.
He ignored the offering. “She wants you to come for dinner.”
“I have plans.” A blatant lie. She set the bag on the counter between them.
“I’m not letting you hold this over me. Or skirt around me. Put on a dress and let’s get it over with.”
“I’ve packed all my dresses.”
“Is that your way of asking me to buy you a new one?” He had played that game a lot and couldn’t decide if it grated that she was trying it. Under the right circumstances, he enjoyed spoiling a woman. Cami’s heart-shaped ass in a narrow skirt with a slit that showed off her legs—
“No,” she said flatly, yanking him back from a fantasy that shouldn’t even be happening. A pang of something seemed to torture her brow. Insulted? Please.
“What do you want, then? Because clearly you’re holding out for something.” He had to remember that.
“And you’re clearly paranoid. Actually, you know what I want?” Her hand slapped the edge of the sink. “I want you to admit you’ve been receiving my payments.”
“Are you that rich you don’t even notice?” She shoved out of the kitchen and whisked by him to the rickety looking desk, then pulled up short as she started to open a drawer. She slammed it shut again. “I forgot. It’s not here. His name is, like, Bernardo something. It’s Italian.”
“The letter! The one that proves I’ve been paying you back.” She frowned with distraction, biting at her bottom lip in a way that drew his thoughts to doing the same. “My brother has the file, though. He took it last fall.”
“God, you’re arrogant.”
He shrugged, having heard that before. Recovering his belief in himself had been the hardest part of all. His ego had taken a direct hit after misjudging her father. He’d questioned himself, his instincts and his intelligence, which almost crippled him as he faced the Herculean task of recovery. In the end, he had no choice but to trust his gut above anyone else and get on with the work. He would have been dead in the water otherwise.
He refused to go back to self-doubts. He faced everything head-on and dealt with it as expediently as possible. “Let’s get past the games. I know you have a hidden agenda. Speak frankly.”
“I don’t! I’m exactly what I look like. I applied for a job for which I am fully qualified. You came along with your sword of retaliation and cut me off at the knees. Then I was nice to a little old lady who happens to be your grandmother. Now I have to move and get back on my feet. Again.”
Her hand flung out with exasperation as she spoke. She smelled like the cinnamon and vanilla she’d been baking with, sweet and homespun. All smoke and mirrors.
“How was I supposed to know you would buy the Tabor when I interviewed six months ago? I’m not trying to pull a fast one on you. You’re the one out to get me.” She managed to sound quite persecuted.
He shook his head, amazed. “You look like you’re telling the truth, but so did your father. It’s quite a family talent, I have to say.” Then, because he was so damned tempted to reach out and touch her, he neutralized that secret weapon of hers. He gave her luscious figure a scathing once-over and said, “Of course, he didn’t work the additional diversions you employ.”
Her jaw dropped open with affront, but her gaze took a skitter around the room. She blushed, seeming disconcerted. Caught out, even. “I’m not— You showed up here unannounced! As if I’d throw myself at you.”
“No?” He was needling her, determined to maintain the upper hand, but that tiny word seemed to flick a switch.
She flung back her hair to glare at him. “You’re the last man on earth I’d want anything to do with!”
She faltered as she said it and tried to give him a scathing once-over, but her lashes quivered. He could tell by the way they moved that her gaze traversed his torso and down to the muscles in his abdomen. His stomach tightened with the rest of him. In those charged seconds, he grew so hot, his clothes should have incinerated off his body.
When she brought her gaze back in a flash of defiance, there was a glow of speculation in their depths. The light shifted, or, more accurately, the fog of animosity in her eyes dissolved into a mist of desire.
The air shimmered, hot and oppressive between them. All an act, he reminded himself, but, What the hell. He ought to get something.
“If you want to talk about compensation, I’m listening.” He suddenly seemed really close. His voice was like whiskey-soaked velvet.
“What?” She took a step back, reeling from the way her body was betraying her. She was trying to rebuff him, but everything about him overwhelmed her senses.
She came up against the wall and he flattened his hands on either side of her head, not touching her, but caging her. She set her hands on his chest, alarmed then intrigued by the layers of heat and strength that pressed into her fingertips. He was pure vitality, enticing her hands to splay and move in a small stroke of curiosity that quickly edged toward greed.
How did he disarm her so quickly? How had they even wound up like this? She could feel his sharp nipples stabbing into the heels of her palms and it pleased her. Excited her. She wanted to run her hands over his chest and onto his lower back, exploring everywhere.
She had to quell a whimper of helplessness. This desire was terrifying and exhilarating at once. Deadly, yet impossible to ignore.
His pupils swallowed all the color in his eyes, drawing her into the darkest unknown.
“What are you offering?” His arousal was so tangible in his voice, it felt like a caress from her shoulder down her chest. A sweep of bumps rose on her skin and her breasts grew heavy and swollen.
“Cold?” The corners of his mouth deepened and she couldn’t read his eyes.
This was bizarre and damning, yet compelling. She felt as though a drug had been released in her system that made her languid and euphoric. She didn’t move away. Couldn’t. Her breaths moved unevenly, and she could swear she felt the brush of his erection against her.
His muscles were like iron. Rather than shoving him away, she dug her fingers into flesh that had no give, exploring against her own willpower. How could the inherent strength in him, that wasn’t even being exerted against her, make her so weak?
He was doing something to her, though. It was a force that gripped her without effort. He wasn’t even touching her. She was the one touching him, yet she couldn’t escape. Couldn’t make her body push him away. She stood there and watched his face draw closer, filling her vision. She waited, lips parting, mind blank, until his mouth touched hers. Hot.
Why she held still for his kiss, she didn’t know. It was beyond stupid, yet she let it happen, wanting to know something she couldn’t even define. She tensed, maybe expecting punishment. Cruelty, even. He wasn’t a kind man. She already knew that.
He was cruel as he kissed her, but in a way she couldn’t have anticipated. He used gentleness to tease her lips into opening wide, then slowly worked their mouths into a firmer fit, angling and sinking closer, waiting until she was moving her mouth against his before he settled in to fully plunder.
A deep quiver rang through her. Recognition. As though she’d been waiting all her life for this. Her body gave a small shudder and sighed in relief. This one.
That should have scared the hell out of her, but she was so entranced by the sense of discovery, by the flood of heat and need, she let the kiss continue. She let it draw out, going on and on while she sank deeper and deeper into sweet pleasure.
She had never progressed much further than a kiss. Had never wanted to. Not like this. This kiss was beyond anything she’d ever known. It was right. It picked up all the pieces of herself she’d left scattered and broken and fit them together again, making her feel whole and alive. Omnipotent.
Worldly and womanly and exalted.
Her fingers moved, testing the firmness of his pecs, then slid in a blatant caress across the flex of his muscles, squeezing and shaping, tracing the ridges of his ribs and flowing to the hollow of his spine.
He growled and dropped his hands to her waist, stroked her hips in a sweeping circle of his big hands, then he cruised his palms up to cup her breasts, thumbs raking across her nipples. The twin sensation was so sharp and electric, she bucked.
He settled the weight of his hips against hers, pinning her to the wall, forcing her to take that continued gentle torture of her nipples. Heat plunged into her loins, and there was no denying what she felt there. She was screamingly aware of the stiffness of his arousal against her. His thighs were hard and hot, pressing hers to open so her mound was firmly in contact with that hard, hard shape. She throbbed under the pressure of him against her so intimately. When had she ever wanted something so earthy and base? Never. Not before this moment and this man who kissed her to the point she stopped thinking.
His thumbs circled and teased with an expertise that made her wriggle, the acute stimulation lifting her hips into his. More. That’s all she could think as she kept kissing him, suffocating, but unwilling to stop. Keep doing that. I want more.
The way they were consuming each other was blatant and more primal than anything she’d ever known. Her arms lifted to circle behind his neck, arching her breasts into his relentless hands. He pinched her nipples and she whimpered at the pleasure-pain, legs growing weak and pliant under the pressure of his. She stroked her fingers through his hair, luxuriating in the feel of the short, crispy strands, before drawing his head down to increase the pressure of his kiss to the point of near pain. It wasn’t enough. It could never be enough.
His tongue thrust in and her hips ground against his, seeking the most acute sensations she could find. Nothing had ever made her act so animalistic. That’s why she’d never gone all the way. She’d never been compelled to by her own body, but oh, the way he was massaging her breasts was driving her crazy. She was so aroused, she actually mewled with loss when he lifted his head and dragged his hands down to her hips.
He watched her as he held her still for the blatant, deliberate thrust of his hard sex against hers. The flush on his face was barbaric, dark and satisfied as she gasped and met his erotic movement with a wanton, inviting rock of her own. A moan escaped her lips as she climbed ever higher on the steps of arousal toward the precipice of bliss.
Her hands clenched in his shirt and she pressed her head into the wall, giving up her lower half to his, inhibition gone. She had to bite her lip against groaning even louder as he rubbed against the bundle of nerves that was barely protected by the thin fabric of her yoga shorts. Her eyes fluttered closed and she held her breath, quivering with tension, so close—
With a hiss, his hands hardened on her hip bones before he thrust her back into the wall, releasing her to step away.
Stunned, she scrambled for purchase on the empty wall, panting as she fought to remain standing. Her body screamed for his, making this rejection the height of cruelty.
His cheek ticked, but he didn’t look nearly as shattered as she felt. He was aroused, but held a cynical gleam in his eye that cut her to the bone.
“We’ll finish talking about that later. Get dressed. Comb your hair. We’re running late.”
“What?” Her knees threatened to buckle.
If she thought he sounded strained, or as though he balanced on a razor’s edge of his own, the impression evaporated as he smiled, merciless and self-assured. The peaks and valleys in his face stood out in sharp relief, light and dark. Beautiful and indifferent.
“Since the compensation you’re offering comes with such a high rate of interest—” the corner of his mouth curled at his own pun “—I’ll give you a chance to make your case. But my grandmother is expecting us.” He glanced at the gold watch on his wrist, the face black and numberless, with only two needle arms. “We need to leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“You want to finish talking now?” His withering inflection told her they wouldn’t be using their mouths for words.