Married for One Reason Only
BOOK 1 in the Secret Sisters Duet
…for their baby’s sake!
His brief was simple: confirm whether model Oriel Cuvier is the secret daughter of a Bollywood legend. But when billionaire security specialist Vijay Sahir locks eyes with Oriel, all thoughts of work disappear—leading to a few stolen hours where all rules are broken…
Weeks later, Oriel gets two life-changing surprises. First, the truth about her birth mother. Second, she’s pregnant with Vijay’s child! He demands marriage, but can she really promise to honor and cherish him when, until now, all they’ve shared is one extraordinary encounter?
Married for One Reason Only
BOOK 1 in the
Secret Sisters Duet
I would not have allowed you to kiss this mouth if it belonged to someone else.
— Vijay, Married for One Reason Only
For a long time, I had a phrase on my whiteboard that read Secret Royal Baby Twins. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it until my editor asked if I had any duet ideas and I started to pitch that to her.
But I was coming off of Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation and I wasn’t ready to invent another fictitious kingdom (or two.)
My brain hopped around other types of pseudo-royalty–Hollywood? Bollywood. I was picturing a beloved Julie Andrews type of actor who couldn’t possibly have a baby out of wedlock without losing her career. At least, her manager convinces her that she will be ruined if she does. Of course, he’s more worried about his own golden egg, but he whisks Lakshmi to a discrete clinic in Europe to have her baby and pressures her to give it up. She winds up needing surgery and he forges her signature while she’s unconscious. The baby is gone when she wakes up.
I wish I could tell you how hard I laughed when I began telling my husband about this premise. He was very supportive and said, “Well, that has lots of meat. You can–”
“Wait,” I said. “There’s a second baby.”
He was so taken aback he staggered into the cupboard, saying, “Whaat?” It was priceless. I mean, it’s a duet, dude. Of course there’s a second baby.
This first book, however, is about the baby everyone knows about. Except they don’t. Oriel knows she was adopted, but she was given misinformation. She’s shocked when Vijay turns up as an emissary for her birth family–especially since they had a one-night affair and she’s just discovered she’s pregnant!
I hope you enjoy all the twists and turns and surprises in my Secret Sisters duet. Be sure to read Manhattan’s Most Scandalous Reunion for the story of the double-secret twin, Nina.
share this excerpt!
Married for One Reason Only
Oriel Cuvier opened her hotel room door anticipating birthday roses and confronted a cleaning gent with a mop.
Mon Dieu, even the maintenance men were exceedingly attractive in Italy. Her startled gaze had gone straight to the yellow bucket, but as she dragged her attention upward, she arrived at eyes that were so dark they were nearly black. Much like the cup of espresso had awakened her senses an hour ago, she felt as though she was yanked from dull, mundane thoughts to a readiness to experience everything her day had to offer.
“Mi scusi. I heard you were out.” His Italian was stilted, his smile a tense, flat stretch of his lips that apologized for his butchering of the language. “I was told to clean a wet.” His voice was as deeply seductive as Italians were purported to be while his accent and dark coloring suggested he was South Asian.
Oriel had always felt an inexplicable kinship with people from that corner of the world, even though her parentage was supposedly a mixed couple from Eastern Europe.
“En Français?” she suggested. “Or English?”
“English. Thank you.” His speech became as crisp and flawless as a graduate from a British boarding school. “I was told you were out for the day and I should clean a spill.”
Honestly, he could be employed in her line of work with those sharp cheekbones, sensual mouth, mussed high-top haircut and devil-may-care stubble. He was substantially taller than her five-eleven, and his broad shoulders strained the seams on his blue boiler suit.
“I didn’t request anyone,” she said in bemusement.
“Who is it?” Her agent, Payton, spoke in her ear.
“Oh, one minute.” She had forgotten her call and pointed at her wireless earbud so the hotel worker would know she wasn’t speaking to him. “There’s a man at the door, but there seems to be a mistake. I didn’t call anyone.”
“The maid texted me.” The cleaner brought his phone from his deep pocket.
“The maids haven’t been in yet,” she said.
How was this godlike, educated man pushing a string mop? With that build, he could be laying bricks or bouncing clubs at the very least—which would also be a complete waste of a startlingly magnificent presence. The camera would love him.
She loved him. Oriel saw beautiful men all day every day, but none had ever emanated this sort of powerful energy that almost had her taking a step back in awe while wanting to bask in his presence at the same time. It was like an electric current that made her nerve endings tingle.
And even though handsome men rarely affected her, she had a nearly unbearable urge to twirl her hair and cock her head and wait breathlessly for him to speak.
“Send him away,” Payton said in her ear.
She probably should have. Her career was her entire focus these days, providing the sense of achievement that otherwise eluded her. She would never admit to anyone the profound sense of inadequacy that stalked her, or that she had a hole inside her that craved approval and attention. It didn’t even make sense. She had everything anyone could want—health, wealth, intelligence, and independence along with looks that ticked all the boxes for modern ideals of beauty.
She would be mocked to death if she revealed her feeling of being “less than,” so she pushed her angst into climbing toward the very top of her field, allowing nothing to distract her, including men.
Suddenly she had nothing but time for watching how this stranger swiped his thumb across a screen, though. He studied it with an air of concentration. The strength of her fascination was embarrassing, but she couldn’t help it.
He flicked his gaze up to meet hers, catching her giving him moon eyes like a love-struck adolescent. It caused a swoop in her stomach as though she’d crested a wave.
“My mistake. Wrong floor. And my colleague has dealt with the issue.” He pocketed the phone while his penetrating stare kept hold of hers.
Her skin tightened and her bones grew soft. She knew when a man was interested in her. She rarely reciprocated such things, but here she stood. Involuntarily reciprocating with every fiber of her being.
It was disconcerting to be so overcome. To feel so helpless to do anything but stand there while he took in her snug, high-waisted corduroy trousers with matching suspenders over a low-cut floral top.
His mouth relaxed, and the angle of his shoulders eased. It wasn’t all sexual interest, though. There was something else in his study. Not calculation, precisely. Investigation? He liked what he saw, but he was delving into her eyes as though looking for answers to unasked questions.
She wasn’t sure what that cooler side of his appraisal was about, but it was far more unsettling than if he’d worn a wolfish grin and said something suggestive. She could have handled that with flirt or frost. Whatever this was made her neck prickle with premonition. This man was going to change her life.
How silly, she scolded herself, trying to pretend she wasn’t flushing with her reaction. But she was filled with anticipation and something else—her own curiosity. A far-reaching sense of possibility. Excitement.
“Was there anything else I could do for you while I’m here?” he asked in a bland tone.
The tension left the air with a withering dissipation.
She was reading him wrong, she realized with chagrin. He was an employee of the hotel waiting for her to dismiss him. That’s all the lengthy, charged silence had been about. Could he tell she was drooling over him, wanting him to feel the same way she did? How mortifying.
“Yes, actually.” As a hot, self-conscious blush stung her cheeks, she latched on to the first excuse she could think of to cover why she had kept him lingering. “The ceiling fan in my bedroom is rattling.” It had driven her crazy all night. “I haven’t had time to report it. I wondered if that was something you could fix?”
In the pause, she could have sworn she heard the gears in his head give a whir of computation. Then, “I can have a look.”
Oriel’s heart was pounding with nerves, but she pressed her back to the wall, allowing him to enter the small passageway.
He left the mop and bucket outside the door and briefly crowded her, seeming to steal all the oxygen from this tiny foyer.
Her instincts prickled another warning, not because she thought he posed a physical danger, but from awareness of the power that radiated from him. He could seduce her without even trying. Her blood was turning to molasses in the seconds that he loomed close and allowed one corner of his mouth to dent. Those dark eyes of his promised long, sensual nights.
She had never felt this way on meeting a man. It was pure magic, holding his gaze and feeling connected at a level that went far beyond what happened between strangers.
Then his expression hardened with refusal. He snapped his gaze forward and stepped into the room.
He knows. And had decided he didn’t want to make a play for her.
Her whole body went into free fall, and her self-worth crumpled on impact. Oriel felt rejection very deeply. She had her theories as to why—being adopted and an only child. In her observations, people who had spats with siblings and were still loved afterward had more resilience to the small scuffs of life.
She hated that she allowed small rebuffs to strike such a deep place inside her, but they always did. The tiniest slights landed directly on that achingly tender center of her soul.
It was such a perverse reaction, because coming on to a guest could cost this man his job. She had no room in her life for romance, anyway. What did she care if a man she would never see again thought she was worth his time or not?
Nevertheless, she was so stung she thought about asking him to come back later, but he was already trying the switch on the wall and looking at the fan over the coffee table. He wasn’t wearing a ring and didn’t have a tan line where one was missing, she noted. She was annoyed with herself for looking.
“The one in the bedroom,” she murmured, waving across the small lounge.
“You didn’t let him in.” Payton’s voice startled her again.
She seriously had to get her head on straight. “I did. It’s fine.”
“This is how scandals are created!”
“With me doing what? I live like a nun.” She did more scandalous things in public, parading down runways in her underwear, than she did in private. She didn’t travel with any jewelry worth stealing or have any secret predilections worth exposing, either.
She lowered onto the sofa, deliberately turning her back on the man flipping the switch inside her bedroom door. Trying not to think about how his shoes had looked far pricier than the kind she expected a man in his profession to be able to afford.
Perhaps they’d been left by a guest and happened to fit him. She occasionally left wine or clothing behind when she traveled. Most hotels had an arrangement in which the housekeeping staff could divvy up abandoned items as a small job perk.
“If someone saw you letting him in, it could ruin the interest from Duke Rhodes,” Payton said.
Ugh. Right. The reason for his call. Oriel had been introduced to the aging action star at a cocktail party a few nights ago.
“Do you really think I should go to Cannes with him? He’s twice my age.”
“He likes you.”
“We spoke for five minutes.” He had tried to kiss her on the lips. “I honestly couldn’t say whether I liked him or not.” She hadn’t. “Have you spoken to him? Caught a whiff of his breath?” she added with a wince of recollection.
“It’s part of his image that he always has a cigarette in his hand.”
“And a drink in the other? He smelled like scotch.” The sour, lingering stench of heavy drinking had emanated from his pores.
“It’s good scotch, angel. He smashes box offices. The cameras follow him everywhere. Do you want to take your career to the next level or not?”
“Of course, but that’s my only week of vacation this year.” And her parents were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary. “It will chop into the first two days of it.”
“You can fly straight from Cannes to Tours. His people will pay for all of it.”
Payton was the best in the business. One didn’t move from runway to international ad campaigns without a man like him paving the way. Thanks to him, she no longer shared a room with other models and was given first-class suites like this one, with gorgeous views of the Milan skyline.
Even so, she found his strategy disheartening. What about working hard? What about advancing on merit? Why resort to timeworn gimmicks? Who would respect her if she couldn’t respect herself?
“I’m concerned about what a man like Duke Rhodes would expect if—”
A dull thump and a sharp curse had her sitting up and twisting to see into the bedroom.
The maintenance man had draped a spare blanket over the bed and was flat in the middle of it, pushing the fan off his chest while blood welled on his forehead.
“I have to go.” She pulled out her earbuds and leaped to her feet.
“Be careful. Stay on the bed,” Oriel Cuvier rushed in to say. “I’ll call down for help.”
Vijay Sahir sat up to set the contraption on the floor. “I’m fine.”
He was rattled and bruised, but it was his own fault. He’d been scanning the room for clues about her, eavesdropping on her conversation while thinking less than honorable thoughts about her and the bed he was standing on.
He’d been paying no attention to the fan he’d been pretending to fix, giving the housing an absent wiggle. The damned thing had come down on top of him, ringing his bell hard enough to leave him angry with himself for being so careless.
“That could have come down on me last night.” She eyed the wires dangling from the ceiling. “Your head is bleeding. You need first aid, and I need to make a proper complaint.”
She stepped around the broken fan and reached for the cordless phone in its bedside charger.
“No!” He threw himself across the bed to catch her wrist. “They’ll fire me.”
They wouldn’t. Couldn’t. He didn’t work here. Which would be even trickier to explain.
“Well…” Even wearing a frown of consternation, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Her profile said she was of mixed Romanian and Turkish blood, adopted at birth by a French couple. Vijay would be damned if she didn’t look Indian with that natural golden tone in her skin and those strong brows. Hell, in person she looked even more like Bollywood legend Lakshmi Dalal with her big brown eyes, her delicate bone structure in an oval face, her near-black hair in an untamed disarray of wavy curls. Her mouth was naked, but still made a bold, full-lipped statement when she pursed it stubbornly.
“I won’t let them fire you.” She stood tall and wore the confidence of wealth.
Don’t be a hypocrite, Vijay. You’re wealthy, too.
Even more so very soon, but he had a well-earned aversion to spoiled heiresses.
“I’m still new here.” Whether she took that as new to this hotel or this country didn’t matter. Both were very weak versions of the truth. He unconsciously stroked his thumb against her incredibly soft skin in persuasion.
Her breath caught, and a confused spark flashed into her eyes, one that arced across to stab an answering heat into the pit of his belly.
Everything about her was slicing his brain into sections, making it difficult to remember she was the subject of an inquiry. Or possibly an innocent bystander chosen for her resemblance to a Bollywood icon. Either way, she was the key to ensuring Vijay’s sister wasn’t conned out of her fortune.
Vijay made himself release Oriel’s wrist and rolled to his feet on the far side of the bed. “If you give me an hour, I’ll have all of this sorted,” he promised. “I need to fetch a few tools.”
He wasn’t a certified electrician, but he could rewire a fan.
“I actually have an appointment.” She glanced at the clock.
“I can let myself in.” That’s what he’d been planning to do with his ill-gotten, all-access housekeeping card. He had taken a chance, hoping she would already be out for the day. The mop had been a prop, the knock a precaution.
“I suppose.” Her doubtful gaze dropped to the name tag on his borrowed coveralls, then came back to his eyebrow. “You’re still bleeding. Did you realize that? Please sit down.” She nodded at the edge of the bed and disappeared into the bathroom.
He touched the wet trickle that was winding its way down his temple. When he saw the blood, he swiped the sleeve of the coveralls across it, leaving a dark streak on the heavy blue cotton.
“I’ll survive. Don’t worry about it,” he called.
“No, let me.” She came back with a small bag marked with a red cross. “I asked you to fix the fan. This is my fault.”
He hesitated, then sat on the bed and closed his eyes, trying not to picture the way the suspenders framed her breasts and cleavage so enticingly. He briefly thought about coming clean and saying, Look, I need your DNA.
A container ship of worms would open at that point, and for what? The chance that Oriel was related to Lakshmi Dalal was near zero. As far as Vijay could discern, a con man was leaping on Oriel’s resemblance to Lakshmi to get his hands on the money Vijay and his sister would make as they merged ViKay Security Solutions with a bigger, global enterprise.
On the very slim chance that their “client” was telling the truth and Lakshmi did have a lost child out there, Vijay owed the man his utmost discretion. The mystery seemed too coincidental to be believed, though. When Vijay had booked this trip to Europe, he had seen an opportunity to get to the bottom of things. He’d tacked on this side trip to Milan so he could intercept Oriel. All he had to do was pretend to be a hotel worker for another few minutes, steal her toothbrush, and get on with his life.
There was a tearing sound, the pungent scent of alcohol, then a cool swipe on his brow that left a sting in its wake.
He couldn’t help his small wince.
“Sorry.” She blew on it, making his eyes snap open.
Her blouse gaped, and he was staring straight down the shadowed valley between her lace-cupped breasts. Lovely, abundant breasts that his palms itched to gather and massage.
He deliberately set his hands onto the blankets next to his hips, but he could still smell the fragrance of tropical body wash clinging to her skin and wanted to rub his face into her throat. He wanted to keep going, dislodging the edges of her shirt so he could find her nipples—
“There.” She set a bandage over the cut, cupped his face in her cool hands, and kissed the injury.
He was so shocked, he snapped his head back.
“I’m sorry.” Her hands fell away, but she was frozen, still leaning over him, as shocked as he was. “I didn’t mean to—I have a little cousin who—Obviously, you’re not a child. I’m so embar—”
“Do it again.” The words shouldn’t have left his chest, but there they were, rumbling up into the space between their lips. He didn’t lower his attention back to her breasts. He kept his face tilted up and his gaze on her mouth.
For endless seconds, they were held in that statewhile she made up her mind. Then slowly, slowly she lowered her head. Her mouth pressed to his, delicate as a butterfly landing on a rose. He lost his sight. Impressions came to him in flashes as her lips slid against his—the softness of flower petals and the crushed scent of them filling his head. Velvety heat in her breath and the dark, sweetly sensual flavor of her as they both opened their mouths wider to deepen the kiss.
He skimmed his touch along her forearms, catching lightly at her elbows, inviting her closer. She braced her hands on his shoulders and leaned against him, slanted her head and sank into their kiss, stealing every thought in his head.
It was the most frustratingly delectable kiss of his life. He wanted to drag her in and take control, but he was too enthralled by letting her have her way. She sipped and experimented and decided what she liked before she pressed deeper. Tasted him more boldly.
He groaned and signaled more firmly on her arms, urging her to be more aggressive.
Her knees dug into the mattress on either side of his hips. The warm weight of her settled on his thighs. Gratification rumbled in his throat. He swept his palms to her shoulders and roamed his touch over the warmth of her body through silk. He followed the straps of the suspenders, enjoying the lithe flex of her back and the furrowed texture of her trousers where he made circles on the flare of her hips.
She sighed and inched her knees on the mattress, settling more deeply into his lap. She switched the slant of her head to the other side with barely a breath for either of them.
This boiler suit was a size too small. It pulled tautly across his back and shoulders and against his knees as he splayed his legs and looped his arms around her, trying to drag her even tighter into his lap. Her hair tangled in his fingers as he cupped the back of her head and gave in to the craving taking over him. He swept his tongue into her mouth and sucked on her lips, wanting to absorb her into himself.
She made a noise that was a helpless pang of pleasure, pure seduction, and shivered. Her arms folded behind his neck and she pressed even closer, so all he could think was how badly he wanted the heat of her sex scorching where he had hardened to titanium.
His hands cupped under her bottom and, purely on instinct, his arms hardened around her. He rolled, setting her beneath him on the bed. Now he could kiss her throat the way he’d been dying to, tasting the small hollow at the base. Her hands went into his hair and—
“Mon Dieu. Stop.”
He lifted his head. Her horrified gaze was pinned to the ceiling. When she met his own, she pressed her head more deeply into the mattress, expression appalled.
Bloody hell. He wasn’t a hotel employee, which would be bad enough. He had lied his way in here.
Vijay pushed himself off her, feeling as though he left a layer of his skin adhered to her. It hurt. He didn’t dare look down to see whether these damned coveralls were disguising his arousal.
She was sitting up and smoothing her hair, ensuring her blouse buttons were secure. “That shouldn’t have happened.”
“No,” he agreed. “It shouldn’t. I’ll leave.” He did.
It was a good thing Oriel’s appointment this morning had only been a fitting. The main requirement of her had been to stand still and be quiet. She would have been useless at anything else. Her mind had been completely occupied by the most salacious kiss of her life.
Apparently, she harbored fantasies of making love to strange men who appeared at the door like the mythical pizza delivery hookup. What else could explain the way she’d crawled into his lap and practically offered herself? If she hadn’t blinked open her eyes to see the bare wires in the ceiling, and been reminded where she was and that he was a complete stranger, she might have gone all the way with him!
Maybe it had been a dream, she tried telling herself as she looked around. The fan was back in place, the spare blanket gone, the bed made and the pillows fluffed. The suite wore the tidy polish of an efficient housekeeping visit.
When she tried the switch, the fan was perfectly silent, not rattling the way it had last night.
Should she call down and leave a message to thank him? Leave a tip with a note? What would she say? You left me rattled. Can you fix that?
The part that was torturing her most was, why? Why had she lost any sense of decorum? Was she that starved for affection?
She did have yearnings for a serious relationship, but she also knew she had to love herself. She couldn’t expect someone else to make her feel loved.
Maybe she should start dating herself, she thought, smirking around the mouth of bottle of water she was drinking. Rather than seek outside validation, she could take herself out for dinner. It was her birthday, after all.
Actually, maybe she would do that, she decided, and started to search for a restaurant to make a reservation. She was distracted by an email from her agent. Payton had sent through a confirmation on her trip to Cannes in May. Magnifique, she thought dourly.
Her mother had also left a message about Oriel’s gown for the anniversary party. Madame Estelle would be annoyed when Oriel told her she wouldn’t arrive until the morning of, thanks to her red carpet appearance with Duke Rhodes.
She bit back a sigh and threw her phone down while she began to change, still irritated by this Cannes idea. She was trying to make her mark without riding her mother’s famous coattails, but she would be riding the coattails of a one-time heartthrob who wanted to look as though he could still get off-camera action in the form of a twenty-five-year-old model. Payton would say it was how the game was played, but Oriel felt like a sellout.
She didn’t have time to stand around brooding, though. She had a casting call for a luxury eyewear brand in an hour. Such things ran notoriously late, but she was always five minutes early. It was mid-March and the breeze still sharp, but she changed into a filmy summer dress that showed lots of her long, tanned legs.
She moved into the bathroom to brush out her hair and fix her makeup and found a note where her toothbrush ought to have been.
The scrawled handwriting took her a moment to work out.
Apologies. I dropped your toothbrush while washing the dust from my hands. The fan is in order now. Call me if you have further concerns.
There was a phone number in place of a signature.
Hmm. Was he offering his number in a professional capacity or giving her his number?
She tucked the note in her bag while she applied a bold red to her speculative smile, pondering whether she would text him and what she might say.
After a quick check that she had a pair of heels, and a romance novel to read while she waited, she threw on her overcoat and hurried out.
Vijay ordered a beer while he waited for a table at an upscale restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. When he checked his phone, he saw a text from his sister, Kiran, asking how the merger discussions had gone and why he wasn’t home yet. He replied,
Good. I was delayed. Will fly home tomorrow.
He didn’t mention that the offer they’d received was so generous, he was more concerned than ever that she was being targeted for her fortune. He also skipped telling her that he’d stolen a toothbrush to prove it.
Vijay had sent the toothbrush overnight to a DNA lab. When he returned to Mumbai, he fully expected their client, Jalil Dalal, to refuse to give up his own sample to determine whether he was Oriel’s uncle. Vijay was calling the man’s bluff, dismantling the excuse Jalil was using to spend so much time with Kiran.
Jalil had seen Kiran speak in Delhi at a symposium about women in business where she had relayed how she and Vijay had grown their security company from a scrappy start-up to acquisition offers. Jalil had followed her to Mumbai, where he had asked her to help him with a “highly confidential, very personal assignment.”
Kiran was beautiful and intelligent and successful enough for any man to want her on her own merit, but Jalil’s request was not in their wheelhouse. Vijay and Kiran had started ViKay Security Solutions to protect themselves after taking a difficult stand that had destroyed the life they’d grown up in. A few years ago, they had accidentally developed a facial recognition system that accounted for skin tone, scars and makeup.
Their system was so accurate, global powerhouse TecSec wanted to acquire it. The owner was prepared to make Vijay the VP of his Asia division, and Kiran would have an executive role overseeing programming and development for the entire organization. They could finally put their past behind them and redeem their reputations.
This was not the time to run private investigations searching for imaginary children of deceased Bollywood stars.
That’s what Kiran had been asked to do, though. Jalil Dalal had seen a model who resembled his dead sister and claimed Oriel must be his secret niece. Jalil didn’t have proof Lakshmi had been pregnant. She had gone to Europe around the time of Oriel’s birth and made a few remarks before she died—of a broken heart, according to Jalil—but that was all he knew.
It was the kind of tale that appealed directly to Kiran’s soft heart, though. She had swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
Vijay sipped his beer, almost wishing the story was true. It would give him an excuse to see Oriel Cuvier again. He’d been in a state of low-key arousal all day thinking about their kiss. It shouldn’t have happened, but he was not nearly as remorseful as he ought to be.
Oriel definitely possessed the same sensual allure as Lakshmi Dalal, he acknowledged sardonically, but it was beyond outlandish that she could be the screen queen’s secret child.
For starters, the beloved actress wouldn’t have such a scandal in her past. Lakshmi Dalal was India’s didi, first charming her way into hearts with a portrayal of an older sister who was determined to give her kidney to her ailing younger brother. In a later film, she disguised herself as a young man, both becoming a symbol of feminism to girls and indelibly imprinting herself into adolescent male fantasies when she put on a sari and danced in the rain. From there, she became a mainstay in romantic musicals, a seal of wholesomeness that reassured all parents it was safe to allow their children to watch.
Jalil claimed that’s why this had to be handled so delicately. He didn’t want his sister’s memory tainted, but Jalil lived off what remained of Lakshmi’s earnings. That had to be running low by now. He was looking for fresh income, and Kiran was a convenient target.
That might be a cynical view, but Vijay didn’t trust anyone except Kiran. And after his failed engagement, he would do anything to protect Kiran from similar disillusionment.
He flicked to the next email and saw his presentation to the hotel had resulted in an agreement in principle to move forward with the security package he had pitched to them.
Vijay was the king of multitasking. He’d detoured here on his way home from the merger meeting, booked himself into Oriel’s hotel and wrangled a tour of the security system by pitching his own. That had given him the knowledge to break into a maintenance area undetected. He’d finagled himself a housekeeping card, talked his way into the room of a hotel guest, and retrieved what he needed to expose his sister’s paramour as the fraud he was.
A man in his position should behave more honorably, he supposed. By misleading his sister and going behind Oriel’s back, he was perpetuating the sorts of lies and betrayals he’d suffered.
As if karma wished to offer him a chance to make better choices, he absently lifted his gaze to the door and watched Oriel walk in. A jolt of electrical thrill went through him.
Dusk was closing in, but she looked as though she’d just left a beach with her hair windswept and her skin glowing. She wore makeup that emphasized her wide eyes and lush mouth. As she stood in the doorway, she unbelted her coat to reveal an airy dress with a ruffle across her chest. He leaned down slightly and caught a glimpse of her slender calves.
He was definitely in the throes of a sexual crush, but she had climbed into his lap this morning as though it was where she was meant to belong.
Heiress, his brain reminded him starkly, but his lap twitched with lascivious memory.
He watched her glance around uncertainly. Meeting someone? Who? The most intense aggression punched him in the gut, but he already knew that jealousy was a pointless emotion. If the person you were committed to wanted someone else, they were already gone.
Oriel smiled as the maître d’ greeted her. She must have been informed the restaurant was full, because her smile fell away. Like him, she seemed to be invited to wait at the bar until a table became free. She sent a considering look his direction, and her eyes widened as she met his gaze.
Don’t, he told himself, even as he stepped off his stool and nodded at it, inviting her to join him. Hot tension invaded his belly as he waited for her to decide.
Her dark red lipstick briefly disappeared as she rolled her lips together.
Oh, those lips. So soft. So hungry. How would they feel traveling other places?
With another faltering smile, she pointed and told the maître d’ she would join him. She moved like a ballerina as she approached, hair bouncing as she seemed to float on air. Her coat fell open, and her dress seemed to be made of something delicate like gossamer. It clung subtly to her breasts, and he had to exert all his control not to ogle her.
“Hello again.” Her cheeks might have stained with color, but it was difficult to tell in this light. “I should apologize for this morning.”
“No, I was out of line.” Way, way out of line. “It was excellent taste on my part, but poor judgment.”
Her mouth twitched with reluctant humor. Her gaze flickered over his collared shirt and tailored pants, then widened with startled comprehension.
“Are you on a date?”
“I had a meeting.” He debated how much to tell her. “I pitched my security company. I’m Vijay.” He offered his hand, deliberately withholding his surname.
“Oriel.” Her wariness dissolved into a bright smile as she put her hand in his. “You didn’t sign your note. Did you think I would get you in trouble if I knew your name?”
He practically fell into the dark, sensual pools of her eyes. The soft feel of her hand in his was the only thing keeping him from drowning.
“I’m quite sure you’ll get me into trouble.” It was supposed to be a joke, but the truth sent a skip through his chest. “Oriel.”
She laughed, and of course it was the sparkling kind that was heady as champagne bubbles. “I’ll try not to. Vijay.”
Spending more time with her was a terrible idea, but as he held her hand, the noise around them dimmed, and all he saw was her. It was like taking a hit of a potent drug.
The bartender broke the spell, asking for her order. Oriel requested white wine and slid onto the stool Vijay had vacated.
“Thank you for fixing my fan. It seems perfect now.”
He’d had to sneak around the maid’s schedule, but as he subtly drank in her scent, he had no regrets about being inconvenienced.
“You didn’t want to eat at the hotel?” Ironically, he had avoided the restaurant there out of concern he would run into her. He set his elbow on the bar, pleased that the crowded space meant he had to stand so close that her knee brushed his thigh.
“It caters to tourists. I wanted to treat myself to something more inspiring. It’s my birthday. Are you also celebrating? Did your meeting go well?”
“It did, but I’m just having a beer.” He would find somewhere else to eat. This was madness, even talking to her again. “Happy birthday,” he said as her wine arrived.
They saluted with their drinks, and her spine softened as she sipped.
“Long day? What do you do?” He already knew, but he liked that she had to lean close to him to be heard over the din.
“Model. I’ve been at a casting call for hours. They were whittling it down, so I had to keep doing my thing as more higher-ups were called in.” She lowered a pair of invisible sunglasses and made an O of her mouth.
He didn’t care what the sunglasses looked like. He’d buy them and the car that went with it. “Did you get it?”
“Who knows, but it went well enough that it’s another reason to celebrate. Only one, though.” She tilted her glass. “I have an early call for a photo shoot tomorrow. Then I’m on a plane back to New York.”
“You live there?”
“Paris, but I spend a lot of time in New York. Actually, I spend a lot of time on airplanes.” She sipped again. “You? I assume your maintenance work is a side gig while you get your company off the ground? Why Milan?”
Damn. He had implied that he had moved here.
“It’s a temporary thing.” He considered how to stick as close to the truth as possible. “We’re based in Mumbai, but hoping to expand. I came to Milan because my sister is involved with a man I believe is trying to take advantage of her.”
“Oh?” Her expression cooled.
“I can see you judging me.” He pointed the mouth of his bottle at her. “Brothers are allowed to be protective, especially when I raised her and she’s all I have.”
He hadn’t meant to reveal that, only to keep her from labeling him as some sort of patriarchal, honor-obsessed throwback.
“You lost your parents?” Her expression softened. “I’m sorry.”
“When I was fourteen, yes. She was ten.” He drank the last of his beer, trying to rinse away the pall of anguish, old and more recent, that their death still left in his throat. “Our grandmother lived with us, but she was quite frail and passed a year later.”
“That must have been a very difficult time.” Her brow wrinkled with compassion. “No wonder you’re so close and protective of her. Does your sister live here?”
“Mumbai. What about you?” He quickly flipped it so he wouldn’t have to dissemble any more than he already had. “Do you have siblings?” Everything online said she was an only child, but he might as well have it straight from her.
“No. I always wished for a brother or sister, but my mother—” She hesitated. “Maman is very wrapped up in her career. She has every right to be. She’s a famous soprano. Estelle Fabron?”
He shrugged, feigning unfamiliarity with the name. He only knew it from the mention in Oriel’s profile anyway.
“Madame Estelle is beloved in the opera world. Especially here.” She kept leaning in to speak against his ear. Her breath tickled, and he was damned close to turning his head and capturing her mouth with his own. “She casts a long shadow. It’s refreshing to speak to someone who has never heard of her.”
Her lips were right there, ripe and tempting. He looked into her eyes, and she was staring at his mouth. Are we doing this, my beautiful goddess?
The hostess appeared to say their table was ready. He was not ready to let her go, but his beer was finished.
“Join me,” Oriel invited.
It was the moment when Vijay should have insisted he was only here for the one drink, but he couldn’t make himself say good-night. Once he used the DNA test to vanquish Jalil, he would continue his life as programmed. It was highly unlikely he would ever see Oriel again. Surely there was no harm in buying her dinner and spending another hour in her company?
Now he was lying to himself as well as her. Or at least feeding himself weak rationalizations, but he waved her to follow the hostess and held Oriel’s chair before he took the one opposite.
Oriel opened her menu, but glanced over it at him. “I’d like to buy you dinner. As I said, I’m celebrating, and you did suffer that injury from fixing my fan.”
Her glance touched the nick above his brow, which was visible because he’d removed the bandage as soon as it stopped bleeding.
When her gaze dropped to the menu, she bit her lips again.
The prices were on the high side even for Italy. It struck him that she thought he might struggle to afford one meal, let alone two.
Wasn’t this an awkward position to be in? Very few women he dined with had ever paid for themselves, let alone bought him a meal. Irrationally, he was insulted by her offer. There was a snobbery to the move that got under his skin—which was his personal baggage coming around on the carousel. He doubted she was trying to offend him.
“If one of us pays for the other, it makes this a date,” he pointed out. “If this was a date, especially our first date, I would pay. Yes,” he replied in answer to the way her brows lifted. “I’m that sort of man.”
Her mouth pursed to hide a smile. “Split it down the middle then? Since we’re sharing a table out of convenience? How do you feel about sharing dishes?”
“Depends what you like.”
“I like everything.” The look she sent him had to be from her stock of smoldering expressions for a camera. Even so, it went into him like a spear, straight to the tightening flesh between his thighs.
He was definitely paying for dinner.
Once they ordered, he said, “You seem to be traveling alone, but I should have asked. Is there anyone you usually dine with?” He had overheard her conversation about appearing with that action star. It had sounded like an innocuous photo op, and his research said she was single.
“I travel too much to date seriously. You?” She subtly braced herself.
“I would not have allowed you to kiss this mouth if it belonged to someone else. Yes,” he said as her jaw went slack. “I’m also that sort of man.” Blunt. Possessive in a reciprocal way. He offered monogamy because he expected it.
Her chin came up. “Did I kiss you?”
“You absolutely did.”
“I didn’t hear you objecting. Perhaps speak more clearly next time.”
“Will there be a next time? I’m delighted to hear it.”
She hid her smile with her wineglass, indignant but also amused. “Do all the hotel guests receive such personal treatment?”
“Definitely not. You’re an exception.”
“Hmm.” She relaxed and recrossed her legs, bumping his shin beneath the table.
He reflexively caught her ankle between his calves, just long enough to have her startled gaze flash into his so he could watch that haze of sensual awareness come into it.
He released her as quickly as he’d caught her, leaving Oriel breathless.
She didn’t believe in fate or destiny, but she was astonished to have bumped into him this way. She had glanced at the menu on the way to her audition, but hadn’t had time to make a reservation. For a moment after she arrived, she had thought she would have to settle for room service after all.
Now she was enjoying an Indian-Italian fusion of tandoori duck, curried gnocchi, and tikka masala ravioli with a man she’d been thinking about all day.
He was an intriguing man. Educated and confident and quick-witted, but difficult to read. She wanted to ask him more about how he had come to be working at the hotel, but it sounded as though he was only doing it to make ends meet while he pursued bigger things, maybe paying for his expenses while he was here.
“Tell me about your security business,” she invited.
“Most of the credit goes to my sister. She wrote specialty software, and I matched it to the right components. We literally began with one customer at a time, tailoring it to each client’s needs. It’s grown to the point that we’re close to partnering with a bigger company. Those talks are highly confidential, so I can’t say more.”
“Sounds like a big break. Good luck. I hope it goes well.”
“Thanks. How did you get into modeling? What was your big break?”
“Nepotism,” she said wryly. “My mother hoped I would have more vocal talent, but she’s a once-in-a-generation unicorn, and I’m adopted, so…”
His brows went up. Most people reacted with curiosity when she offered that information.
“It’s public knowledge.” She brushed away having revealed such a personal detail. “Maman’s career was taking off. She didn’t want to interrupt it with a pregnancy, but they wanted a family. Adoption was their perfect solution.”
Perhaps perfect wasn’t the best word. They had approached parenting wholeheartedly, but babies were demanding, and they never found the right time to adopt a second one. They claimed to be fulfilled by the single daughter they had, but Oriel had a twisted, illogical sense that if she’d been different, more winsome maybe, they would have wanted another.
“While I was growing up, Maman hired teachers for me in every type of classical instruction, but I was no prodigy. The closest I came was being scouted for a pop band.”
“That suggests you have musical talent.” He was looking at her the way he had when he’d stood outside her hotel room door. Penetrating. Collecting hidden data. “Have you tried acting?”
It was nice to have a man look beyond her face and want to know more about her, but this level of attention was disconcerting. She wasn’t sure why.
“I can do many things reasonably well—dancing and singing and playing piano. I don’t have Maman’s level of talent, though, so I couldn’t bring myself to go into performance arts. I would always be compared to her. Papa is an academic, very intelligent, but I’ll never win prizes for literature or physics. I thought I was destined for mediocrity, but the summer I turned fifteen, one of Maman’s costume designers asked if I wanted to model some of his designs at his show. It was the first thing I’d found where the bar wasn’t already set impossibly high by someone in my family. With modeling, I’ve been able to grow into my own version of success.”
That sense of carving out her own space and rising through the ranks soothed the part of her that struggled to feel good enough. She knew her angst stemmed from her adoption, and it wasn’t entirely fair of her to harbor that sense of rejection. From what she knew of her birth mother, the young woman had been in a very difficult position. She’d had an affair with a married man of a different race and didn’t feel she could keep the baby that resulted, not without losing all the other pieces of her life.
Oriel didn’t resent her for giving her up. Her birth mother had chosen carefully, and Oriel lived an extremely privileged life, but it didn’t seem to matter how often she reminded herself of that. She still suffered this bereft sense of having been cast off simply because she was mixed race.
They went on to talk about things. As they finished dessert, she asked the server to split the bill, but Vijay had taken care of it while she had visited the powder room.
“It’s your birthday,” he said dismissively. “And you barely ate.”
Oriel ran miles every day to keep her figure trim, largely because she had a healthy appetite. Even so, “That was a lot of carbs for a woman who is going to be in a bikini tomorrow.”
“You’ll be fine,” he assured her with smoky admiration.
The potency of this man! She sold seduction for a living and had never experienced anything like his ability to make her swoon with a softly spoken word or a half-lidded glance.
“I…um—” Control yourself, Oriel. “I wouldn’t have been able to sample all of these dishes if I’d dined alone, so thank you. This was a nice surprise.” Beneath the table, she was aware of the toe of her shoe resting next to his. “I guess this is a date now?”
“I guess it is.” His smile was only a tiny bit smug.
They finished their drinks and made their way outside.
“Do you dare be seen walking me to the hotel?” she asked.
“I dare anything.” His mouth twisted with irony.
“Oh, you’re that sort of man,” she teased.
“And this.” He offered his crooked elbow.
She tucked her hand through it as they ambled the few blocks that were bustling with tourists heading out to dine or enjoy the theater.
As they passed a recessed stoop, Oriel spun herself into it, tugging him in with her.
“Would you like to know what sort of woman I am?”
“If you tell me you’re the sort who makes love in public, I may have to adjust what kind of man I am.” He set his forearms on the door on either side of her head, caging her into the shadowed space created by his wide shoulders.
“Ha. Sorry to disappoint. I’m only the kind who doesn’t like that awkward moment wondering if a man will kiss her. I’d rather make it happen. If it’s going to.”
“I noticed that about you already.” He let the tip of his nose playfully brush hers.
“Are you still banging on about how I took advantage of you?” She let her hands rest on his rib cage. “Cry for help. See if someone will rescue you.”
“Help,” he said faintly, flashing his teeth. “I’m helpless to resist this woman.” His lips touched the corner of hers.
She shivered and slid her hands to the backs of his shoulders. She tried to chase his lips, but he switched to kissing the other side of her mouth.
“I don’t usually kiss strangers,” she whispered.
“You don’t feel like a stranger, though,” she admitted, perplexed by how true that was. “It feels like we’re…” Lovers.
That’s what she was thinking. Maybe she said it aloud, because he groaned and covered her mouth with his.
She had been waiting throughout their meal for him to kiss her again. Waiting and waiting.
She sighed with relief and stroked her touch across the landscape of his back, encouraging him to press her into the door, delighting in the way he devastated her with his kiss.
Had she thought she was in control this morning? He had been toying with her, letting her think so. This man knew how to ravage in the most tender way possible, claiming and plundering and pulling her very soul from her body.
At the same time, he gave. Oh, he generously venerated her mouth, silently telling her she was the most precious thing he’d ever tasted. The most exquisite.
Their lips made soft, wet noises while an ache panged in her throat. A sob of surrender. She softened under the press of his heavy body, wanting his weight. Wanting his hard, flat chest compressing her swollen breasts. She wanted to feel his steely thighs naked against hers, bracing hers open. She wanted the unforgiving ridge that was bulging behind his fly to fill her…
“Vijay…” Her hands went down his back, urging him to press into her mound. “Come to my room.”
With the same attitude of superhuman strength he’d exhibited this morning, he dragged his head up and sucked in a breath. He straightened so he wasn’t touching her at all.
“You have an early morning,” he recalled with a ragged edge to his otherwise stern voice. “We should end this here.” He looked away into the street.
“Should? Or is that what you want?” she asked through a tight throat.
He muttered something under his breath. “Believe me, Oriel. I want to come to your room. But it’s not a good idea.”
“Why not?” She hooked her finger in the waistband of his jeans to keep him from retreating further. “We’re single. I don’t know when I would have another evening free like this.”
“And it’s your birthday?” He spoke lightly, but there was a note of cynicism in his tone that made her drop her hand away from his jeans.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” He caught her hand. “Except you’re flying to New York tomorrow. I won’t be here by the time you come back. I have my own work commitments.” His thumb stroked across the back of her knuckles. “I don’t have one-night stands. I don’t think you do, either.”
“That’s not what this would be, though, would it? I mean, you’re right. I’m married to my career right now, but this isn’t a hookup. It’s… I’ve met someone I really like. I want to hang on to what little time we have together.”
He swore again and gathered her up, swooping his mouth down to crash across hers. She tasted the conflict in him and poured herself into the kiss, enticing. Pleading, maybe.
When he lifted his head, they were both panting. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest, her fingertips felt as though they bounced where they rested on his pec.
She started to take his hand and lead him back onto the sidewalk, but hesitated.
“Would it be bad for you to be seen going into a room? I’ll walk through the lobby and you can use the service elevator. You have a card, don’t you? You don’t have to knock when you come to my room.”
His arms hardened to keep her in the shadowed stoop with him. “I’ll knock. If you change your mind, no hard feelings.”
“I won’t change my mind.” She slid her arms around him long enough to kiss under his chin. “But you’re right. I never do this. I don’t have anything. Protection, I mean. Can you?”
His breath left him in a jagged gust. “Yes. I’ll take care of it.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you soon.”