A Virgin to Redeem the Billionaire
BOOK 1 in the Barsi on Fifth Duet
He’ll make her pay…
Until he learns of her innocence!
Self-made billionaire Kaine Michaels has just given Gisella Drummond, daughter of one of New York’s most influential dynasties, a shocking ultimatum: use her spotless reputation to save his own or he’ll ruin her family for betraying him! Kaine knows Gisella wants him, and he knows how much pleasure he can give her! But uncovering sweet Gisella’s virginity makes Kaine want her for so much more than revenge…
Watch for Book Two, Innocent’s Nine Month Scandal featuring Rozalia and Viktor. When Rozi travels to Budapest to ask Viktor for the earring, she winds up seduced, pregnant, and…married?
Also look for Ben’s story in Innocent’s Pregnancy Revelation, a free online read at Harlequin.com.
“If I was here to seduce you, you would know it.”
— Gisella, A Virgin to Redeem the Billionaire
We happened to be in the car with my daughter and her boyfriend while they were visiting us for Christmas 2017. I said to my daughter, “I need to brainstorm a duet idea. I was thinking of two heroes who are rivals for some reason and I want the heroines to be cousins, but that’s all I have.”
After further discussion, Delainey said, “What comes in twos? How about something with a pair of earrings?”
When it comes to brainstorming, I trust my gut and my gut immediately loved this idea! I knew the heirloom earrings had been separated somehow and the cousins are trying to reunite them. But why? And how did the heroes wind up fighting over them?
I decided fairly quickly that the earrings had belonged to the heroines’ grandmother. She sold one in Hungary to come to America and sold the other when she got to New York, to start her new life. Her granddaughters, Gisella and Rozalia, want to buy them back for her. They’ve been searching for years.
In Book One, Gisella learns the New York earring is going up for auction. She arrives to bid on it only to learn Kaine has bought the entire estate and all its contents in one fell swoop! After all these years, she’s been denied.
So has Viktor, the hero of Book Two. This is how the men become rivals. Kaine isn’t interested in picking a fight with Viktor, but he can’t let go of the earring he now possesses. It’s leverage against Gisella and he has a score to settle with her family.
Does he score with Gisella? I’ll let you read the book and find out.
Fun fact! Initially this was going to be titled A Virgin for the Billionaire’s Revenge, but has since been changed to A Virgin to Redeem the Billionaire.
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A Virgin to Redeem the Billionaire
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve had a surprise offer for the entire estate by Mr. Kaine Michaels. A figure has been accepted by the family for the house and all the contents. We will not be auctioning individual items. Thank you for coming, but no further bidding will take place.”
“What? No.” Gisella Drummond barely heard her own gasped words over the babble of discontent that rose from the crowd seated around her. They all let their bidding paddles droop in shock.
She instinctively looked to the tall stranger who had appeared in the room moments ago. He had captivated her as he entered to confer with the officials on a small dais near the fireplace. He was sinfully sexy in a suede jacket worn with casual elegance over black jeans and a button shirt without a tie.
Her first impression had been that his renegade appearance didn’t fit this setting at all. The Manhattan mansion was a gorgeous ode to French Renaissance style, full of antique furniture placed with care on fading silk rugs under crystal chandeliers. Marble columns held up the low ceilings, and heavy velvet drapes blocked out the view of Central Park. That man was too rough around the edges for such a pristine, refined space. Had he really bought it, lock, stock and barrel?
Beside her, Mr. Walters cursed the man. He was one of her uncle’s longtime business associates, had asked after her family and had confided he intended to buy the house.
Gisella was here only for an earring, but she was equally disappointed by this turn of events, probably more so. “Do you know him?”
“He owns Riesgo Ventures.” Mr. Walters spoke with a disparaging sneer. “It’s a tech company out of San Francisco. If he thinks he’s earning any goodwill in this city with a move like that…”
She was curious what else Mr. Walters knew about him, but through the confusion of people rising and talking, she saw Kaine Michaels was leaving.
Urgency gripped her. She quickly excused herself and jostled as politely as she could through the milling bodies toward the door.
For a second, she thought she’d missed catching him. He wasn’t exiting through the front doors of the entry foyer, though. His long legs had carried him up the wide, carpeted stairs to the gallery. He was moving along it with an auction house official hurrying to keep up.
She trotted up after him and pursued them down the hall. They paused at a pair of open double doors. The official spoke to the security guard standing watch.
“This is Mr. Michaels. He has just purchased the house and all of its contents. You can allow him to take anything he likes.”
“Just the one piece,” he said, indicating something on the clipboard in the official’s hand. “The rest can go into storage.”
“Mr. Michaels,” she called, wanting one piece herself before everything was sent to a remote, humidity-controlled facility.
He glanced back at her, then drawled to the guard, “Actually, you can go downstairs and show everyone the door.”
The guard gave her a hard look, as if he meant to include her in his sweep.
She held up a hand. “I only need a moment.”
Kaine jerked his head to dismiss the guard, then glanced at the official. The other man nodded and moved quickly into what looked like a sitting room. The jumble of paintings and sculptures wore numbered tags. So did a handful of furniture and other items. This was clearly the staging area for the auction.
The earring was probably among that collection, practically within reach. Butterflies of excitement batted around her midsection.
“Your moment is almost up,” Kaine said.
She looked to him and lost her voice as she confronted his handsomeness up close. His dark hair was short and thick, his brows bold statements above golden-brown eyes. His swarthy cheeks were smooth, but underlined by a precise border of stubble along his jaw. A goatee framed a mouth too full-lipped and sensual for words.
Men didn’t usually affect her. Not even very good-looking ones, but a funny squiggle in her midsection teased with intrigue, especially when his eyelids lowered in lazy, male appreciation.
She extended her hand. “Gisella Drummond.”
His relaxed demeanor altered. His expression tightened with dismay and he raked her with a more disparaging glance. It went down to her open-toed heels and came back to her snug top with the shoulder cutouts.
When he met her eyes again, she felt the impact as though she had walked into an invisible wall, one that teemed with icy electrical currents. They wrapped around her and squeezed the breath from her lungs.
He snorted in a way that suggested he couldn’t believe her gall.
It was highly disconcerting. She was usually very well received by men. Not just for her various wealthy and respectable contacts, either. She was naturally blessed with the slender height and patrician bone structure seen in ads for swimsuits and makeup.
Her beauty was as much hindrance as strength so she didn’t often use her looks for leverage, but this was battle conditions. She was on the verge of losing something she’d waited years to acquire.
She tried to melt his sudden frost with a warm smile, but it felt forced.
“I know who you are, Ms. Barsi.” He only looked at her hand, didn’t take it.
She let it drop along with her smile. Her heart also seemed to slump uselessly for a moment before she gathered herself with affront.
“I wasn’t trying to misrepresent myself. I use my father’s name.” Not that it should matter either way. Her family was complicated, but she was a Barsi in her heart, if not by blood. The Barsis were a well-regarded family here in New York. Counting herself among them was an honor.
Yet it held no sway over him. If anything, her being one of them seemed to provoke a disdainful tic in his cheek.
“Sir?” the official said, returning from the auction room. “You’re sure this is all you want for the moment?” He held a velvet box in his hands.
“Yes.” Kaine moved into a nearby bedroom. His lip curled with distaste as he took in the canopied bed, the sitting area of ornate boudoir furniture and the heavy blue drapes framing a view over Central Park.
Gisella followed, wishing she’d been able to leave work early enough for the guided tour. It was a one-of-a-kind home and prime real estate. Her parents had money, but no one in Gisella’s family was in a position to buy a house like this, especially if they didn’t love it, which Kaine clearly didn’t.
The official handed him the velvet box. “I’ll have the paperwork ready for you to sign when you come downstairs. Will you consider private offers on anything?”
“Everything but this. You can handle that for me?”
“Of course, sir.” The official waited for Kaine’s nod of dismissal, then hurried out, leaving Gisella alone with him.
Wait. He hadn’t bought a house to get one item, had he?
Kaine tucked the velvet box into the pocket of his jacket without opening it.
Gisella’s stomach swooped with dread. “What was that?”
She moved with panic to where a makeup table and dresser top held a number of open jewelry boxes, all with numbered tags on them. She scanned for the earring she’d only ever seen in the catalog for this auction. Several pairs of earrings were on display, but no orphans.
It wasn’t here. She scanned again, her sense of loss visceral. She was going cold with shock while a shot of adrenaline hit her heart, sending a stinging throb through her limbs. How could she be this close after so long and lose?
“Was that an earring?” She swung around.
He gave her a blithe smile. I know who you are, Ms. Barsi.
She was fully taken aback. A wild suspicion came into her head and out her mouth before she’d had time to absorb how ridiculous it was. “You did not just buy a house to get that earring!”
“It was the most expedient means of getting what I want before anyone else.”
Shock hit in waves. He really had bought the house for the earring. And there were other people after her grandmother’s earring? Enough that he’d gone after it this aggressively? That made no sense. It was one earring.
“I don’t know what you’ve been told, but it’s not that valuable. It’s not worth a house. Not this house. Why didn’t you just bid on it?”
“Buying the house serves other purposes. And I don’t have time to play game shows all day. Shall we?” He waved to invite her to leave.
“No.” She put out a hand, used to having control of most situations, but she was utterly at a loss. It was the stakes, she told herself. She had been hunting that earring for more than a decade. She had been so sure she would take it home today and now her stomach was knotting with gross disappointment.
No. She straightened her spine, mentally smoothing the wrinkles from her normally smooth, aloof confidence.
“I’d like to make you an offer for it.” He’d said he would take some, right?
On everything but this.
His expression grew both alert and satisfied. He cocked his head slightly, gaze scanning her features, taking his time studying her brow and cheekbones, her jaw and mouth. Almost as though he was memorizing them.
“Why do you want it so badly?” he asked. “If it’s not that valuable?”
She licked her lips self-consciously while a scent of danger had her heart doing one of those skips that showed up in movies as a jag of returned life on heart monitors. Her whole body suffused with tingling heat. The air between them crackled.
“It has sentimental value for my grandmother.” And her grandmother was growing frail. Gisella wanted to put it in her pale, elderly hand before another health issue arose to alarm all of them.
“You care about her very deeply.” He seemed to delve into her soul with his piercing golden eyes.
“I do.” A lilt of hope infused the words as she sensed he was coming around. “She’s a very special woman.”
“I’m sure you take after her.” It was a thick piece of flattery, something she knew better than to fall for. Even so, his smoky voice caused her to blush.
It was inexplicable. He wasn’t going out of his way to stoke the sexual awareness between them. She was simply aware it was there. Intensely aware. She didn’t know why she was reacting to him so blatantly. She wasn’t even sure she liked him. He seemed quite arrogant and ruthless.
But fascinating. She knew a lot of rich and powerful men. None radiated this innate confidence. None wore impervious armor that begged her to see if she could pierce it.
Maybe if she’d had lovers, she would have found her sensual side long ago, but she had a silly pact with her cousin to wait for that elusive thing Rozalia kept insisting was real—love.
Gisella had been humoring Rozi when she had made her vow of chastity. They’d been thirteen and sex had sounded ridiculous enough that Gisella had been happy to put it off. Until now, she hadn’t met a man who had tempted her enough to break her promise.
But here she was, locking gazes in a staredown that filled her with anticipation. So much so, if he slid his attention downward, he’d see her nipples straining visibly against the lace of her bra and the light jersey of her top.
“How much would you like for it?” she asked, struggling to stay on task.
“It’s not for sale.”
He sounded so firm, so smug, she scowled in consternation.
“Such a beautiful face shouldn’t wear such an angry frown.” He ambled closer and grazed her jaw with the side of his knuckle. “It might stay that way. Shall we go?”
She ignored the way his light touch made her breath stutter and tightened her mouth with resolve. She was an only child, used to getting everything she wanted.
“How can I persuade you to change your mind?”
“You can’t.” His mouth pulled into a wicked grin. “But I’m tempted to let you try.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t use sexual favors to get what I want,” she informed him coldly. “If I kiss a man, it’s because I want to.” There. It was a dropped glove, but it was true. If she thought a man boorish, she told him so.
If she found a man enthralling… Well, he was the first to fascinate her like this. She wondered if he might become her first in other ways. This power struggle was inordinately exciting.
“Is that so,” he murmured. All the humor bled out of his expression, leaving it full of grave angles. He seemed to consider her words while the backs of his fingers continued to caress her throat where her pulse thrummed like a hummingbird’s wings.
What was she doing? This was madness. He was a stranger. Voices were conversing in a nearby room.
But she wanted him to kiss her. It wasn’t about the earring. He was unlike any man she had ever met. If he walked away and she didn’t at least know what it felt like to have his mouth on hers, she would always wonder.
She stared into eyes that had become the incendiary gleam of liquid gold and dared him to make her day.
His hand came back to her jaw, his touch firm as he bent his head.
He claimed her mouth without ceremony, as if they’d been kissing like this every night for years. And, oh, did he know how to kiss.
This was what she had sought all her life. A man who met her strong personality with an even stronger one. One who took her out of herself with a twist of his mouth against hers, parting her lips and sinking into a hungry, passionate ravaging that dismantled her even as he promised she would be safe in his strong arms.
She became a molten substance as he gathered her hair and squeezed an arm across her back. She pooled like quicksilver against him, curves fitting into the dips and contours of his chest, arms curling around his tense waist to settle her fingers against the warm hollow of his spine.
She had never been kissed like this. Carnal and possessive, urgent and lazy at once. Her scalp stung under the clench of his hand in her hair. Heat consumed her, burning up any memory she had of other men. A moan of pleasure escaped her, but it contained loss. She understood that every kiss that had come before this one had been a manufactured fraud. This was the real thing. She could never settle for less again.
And he was already pulling away.
Her lips clung to his as his hand moved to the side of her face. His mouth lifted away. It was too soon. A sob of protest arrived as a lump in her throat. His breath was as ragged as hers, feathering across her wet lips. She refused to open her eyes, not wanting him to see how completely he had owned her in this too-brief encounter.
He knew, though. He spoke in a gravelly whisper that caressed her cheek and lifted the hairs on her scalp. “I’ll lock the doors and take everything you’re offering, but you’re not getting the earring.”
“What?” She blinked her eyes open and the world came back into focus. She saw the colorful mural on the ceiling, the gilded light fixture. Its glow haloed his dark hair, turning him into an archangel.
“A valiant effort, though.”
She made herself step back, feeling the loss of his heat like a splash of icy water down her front. The barest hint of her lipstick shaded his mouth. She wanted to use her thumb to erase it. She wanted to keep touching him. Lock the doors and stay in here and discover everything he could teach her.
She had always wondered what it would feel like to discover her chemical match. To be devoured by true, animalistic passion.
It was terrifying, as it turned out. Deliriously perilous, yet treacherously alluring.
“That wasn’t—” She cut herself off as she absorbed the jaded look in his eyes. Which was a harder kick to her pride? His thinking she had been trying to manipulate him? Or confessing her passion had been real when his was clearly nonexistent?
“Here comes the frown again. I didn’t expect you’d take this so hard.” The corners of his mouth deepened in a curl of merciless amusement. “It makes denying you what you want so much more satisfying.”
Her ears rang with the double entendre while her scrambled brain finally began to comprehend what was going on.
“Are you telling me you’re doing this as some sort of vendetta against me?”
“What I’m doing—” his voice turned to granite “—is getting your cousin’s attention.” His tone was hard enough to make her insides shiver with foreboding. “Pass the message along. I expect a phone call.”
One week later…
“Did you see my text? I asked you to pick up lattes.” Gisella pouted with disappointment as her cousin, Rozalia, showed up empty-handed in their workroom above the family jewelry store, Barsi on Fifth.
“I didn’t look at my phone.” Rozi peeled off her raincoat and hung it, but missed the hook so the coat dropped to the floor with a flump and a spatter of raindrops. She didn’t notice, only splaying out her hands as though stopping traffic. “I have big news.”
Gisella bit back scolding her cousin. Their mothers were half sisters and a decade apart in age. Rozalia had been born a few months after Gisella, but they had had very different upbringings. Gisella’s mother, a career academic, had had her one baby late in life. At the sight of a dropped jacket, she would have stridently pointed out the need to keep everything neatly in its place, especially when all Gisella’s clothes were top-brand and tailored.
Rozalia’s mom had married young and lived for her husband and four children. For her, things didn’t matter. People did—which was why Gisella had always envied Rozi and secretly wished they were twins instead of cousins.
“Someone…” Rozi said with great drama—because her family was nothing if not rife with artists and performers, “…wanted a deal on a custom engagement ring.”
“That’s nice,” Gisella said mildly. Such things were their bread and butter, but she knew better than to insist Rozi get to the point. She was clearly eager to make a Broadway production out of this. “Who would that be?”
“An agent. For an auction house.” Rozi touched her chin and lifted a musing gaze to the ceiling. “A firm that may or may not have handled the Garrison estate last week.”
Gisella’s heart dropped to roll around the legs of her work stool. It took everything in her to pretend she didn’t go both hot and cold with yearning and embarrassment. Fury and shame.
She felt so foolish for letting Kaine kiss her. She had been lost in some deranged space between flirting and taunting when she invited it. She wouldn’t have let him touch her, however, if she’d known he was exercising some kind of wrath against her family. His toying with her, kissing her the way he had, was just wrong.
I’m getting your cousin’s attention.
His detachment had driven the spike of his rebuff that much deeper. It still stung like mad.
Gisella turned back to the empty platinum pendant setting pinched in the vise on the bench. “We know who won everything at that auction.”
And who had lost.
She had. Even her dignity had been left in that room full of a dead woman’s valuables as she’d rushed to get away from him.
“Oh, forget Kaine Michaels. Or rather, remember what he said about other interested parties? There was a representative on the phone, calling from Hungary.”
Gisella set down her wheel and lifted her magnifying glasses as she swiveled to face Rozi again. “So?”
“He was calling on behalf of Viktor Rohan. According to the agent, he was—” she air quoted with her fingers “—highly motivated to buy the match to the one his mother possesses.”
“Oh, my God, Rozi.”
Sixty-odd years ago, the earrings had been sold months apart on different continents. Finding the one here in America had been years of hard work. They had long ago given up finding the other one, hitting nothing but dead ends every time they tried.
“Guess what else? He’s your cousin.”
“Viktor Rohan? I’ve never even heard of him.” She fully pulled off her eye protection and set it aside. “How?”
“Second cousin, I guess. Your grandparents were brother and sister.”
“He’s descended from Istvan’s sister?”
Istvan had asked their grandmother, Eszti, to marry him when they’d been at university together. He’d given her a pair of earrings as an engagement present and she should have married him and kept those earrings all her life. Instead, student demonstrations had turned violent. At Istvan’s urging, Eszti had sold one of the earrings in Hungary to come to America, unwed and pregnant. Her lover had died before he could follow as promised, leaving her alone in a new country.
Broke and desperate, with Gisella’s mother an infant in her arms, Eszti had married Benedek Barsi, a kind, older man. A goldsmith. Benedek sold the second earring and they started the jewelry store where both Gisella and Rozalia now worked. Eszti was grandmother to both of them, but Gisella didn’t have any Barsi DNA. She had Istvan’s blood—which was how she could be related to Viktor Rohan where Rozi wasn’t.
“Have you never been curious about that side of your family?” Rozi asked her.
“Oh, please. You know what Mom is like. But I agreed with her lack of sentiment in this case. Grandpapa always treated us like we were his. I was never so curious I wanted to hurt him by looking into Grandmamma’s first love. It wasn’t like I could meet Istvan. He died before my mother was born.” Gisella shrugged it off.
“But you’re curious now?” Rozi pried, grinning.
“If he has the other earring, of course I am!”
They laughed and Rozi clapped her hands and bounced in her lace-up boots. “Think of what it would mean for Grandmamma, Gizi.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Gisella cautioned. They had both dreamed for years of returning the earrings to their grandmother, but Gisella had just had her dream popped like a soap bubble by that wretched Kaine Michaels. Oh, she never wanted to think about him again! “Viktor lives in Hungary? What sort of person is he?”
“Rich! He has homes all over Europe, far as I can tell, but he has a family home in Budapest. His mother lives there. I have an email address for her. I’m thinking you should see if she’s willing to meet you, seeing as you’re a long-lost relative and all.”
“Will do. What’s your workload like? Can you get away for a bit?” For the first time in a week, the sun broke past the dark clouds inside her, sending warm beams of excitement through Gisella.
“I could, but—” Rozi gave a small wince.
“If it’s money, don’t even. You know I’ll cover your side of it.” Along with her comfortable income from her work here at the jewelry story, Gisella’s parents were very well off. Her mother was shrewd with investing and had no one to inherit her fortune except her one child. Gisella’s father had set aside a generous trust that he regularly topped up with dividends from his advertising business.
Rozi had the same private education paid for by their grandparents as all the cousins had been afforded, but Rozi’s parents had always lived paycheck to paycheck. Rozi supported herself and didn’t have a buffer.
“I could make the finances work,” Rozi said with a scowl of insult. “But I’m worried about the earring Kaine Michaels has. It sounds like Viktor has been making offers to him. I know you said it looks like a lost cause there. Tell me again what he said about Benny?”
“I presume he was talking about Benny,” Gisella muttered.
At first, she’d been convinced Kaine had been referring to Rozi. Whenever anyone mentioned her cousin, Gisella’s thoughts always went to the one who’d been her constant companion since they’d been infants. While Gisella’s mother had worked, Rozi’s mother had minded Gisella like one of her own. She had pushed Rozi and Gisella in a side-by-side stroller, braided their hair into matching pigtails, dressed them in each other’s clothes and dropped them on the same day into the same kindergarten classroom.
Gisella had a half-dozen cousins, though. Along with Rozi’s three siblings, their uncle Ben had two children. All of them were as dear to her as the next. Kaine could have been talking about any of them that day. However…
“Benny’s the only one I haven’t been able to reach,” she said, hating herself for doing exactly as Kaine had asked. She had spoken to each of her cousins in turn, trying to pass along his message. “Everyone else has said they’ve never met him. When Uncle Ben gets back from Florida, I’ll ask him where Benny is. See if there’s a way to reach him. Even so—”
“I know. Benny can be a rascal, but he wouldn’t hurt a flea.”
Yet Kaine Michaels had some kind of grudge against him. It didn’t make sense.
“Well, I know you don’t want to talk to Kaine, but I think we should make another offer. If we’re going to get these earrings, now is the time. Before…”
Gisella knew what Rozalia was hesitating to say aloud. Their grandmamma was eighty-one and recovering in Florida from a bad bout of pneumonia she had suffered this winter. It was a stark reminder they were running out of time to get the earrings back to a woman they both loved with all their hearts.
“I won’t go to San Francisco, if that’s what you’re suggesting.” Gisella never wanted to see Kaine Michaels again in her life. “He hates me.” The contempt was mutual.
“No, you should go to Hungary,” Rozi agreed. “The Rohans are your relatives. I’ll take a crack at Kaine Michaels myself.”
Something in Gisella screeched and fishtailed. Rozi was pretty in a wholesome way with thick brunette hair, a creamy complexion and a trim if almost boyish figure. She didn’t draw men as inexorably as Gisella’s more classic and voluptuous attributes. They had never been rivals for a man and Gisella didn’t want Kaine anyway!
Even so, she felt oddly threatened by her cousin approaching him. If anything, she ought to be worried he would crush tender Rozi even worse than he’d managed to dent Gisella’s more stalwart soul. They had exchanged a few words and one kiss. He shouldn’t have left her feeling so trampled and discarded. She was stronger than that.
Maybe Rozi’s earnest and engaging personality would inspire a kinder response in him. Persuade where she had failed. She ought to let Rozi at least try. For Grandmamma.
“I always thought if I went to Hungary, we’d go together,” Gisella said sullenly.
“Me, too.” Rozi made a face. “I’m dying to learn more about the earrings. And look at this guy.” Rozi pulled her phone from her pocket to show her a photo. “Tell me he’s not reason enough for a ten-hour flight.”
Gisella glanced at the photo under a headline claiming Viktor Rohan was Europe’s most eligible bachelor. He was very handsome, but she noted his good looks the way she recognized that her other male cousins were attractive—objectively and without stirrings of feminine interest. He didn’t produce a fraction of the heat in her blood that merely thinking about Kaine did.
“Have them both,” Gisella said, determined to stop thinking about Kaine. “I’m swearing off men. They’re a waste of my precious time.”
Rozi chuckled and looked at the photo again, voice softening to a dreamy whisper. “What if we could actually get the earrings for Grandmamma, Gizi?”
“I would love that,” she said with equal yearning.
The tale of the earrings had always struck a chord in her. It had been such a huge sacrifice on Grandmamma’s part. Ezti had sold a cherished gift from her lover to buy a fresh start in the New World. That bold move had been the foundation for the abundant life Gisella enjoyed. How could she not be moved and thankful? How could she not want to repay her grandmother by getting back the earrings that should have been hers all this time?
“Let’s do whatever it takes,” Gisella said, growing solemn and holding out her pinkie.
They linked their little fingers the way they’d done a thousand times when making a pact. “For Grandmamma.”
Kaine Michaels wasn’t surprised when he saw Gisella Drummond enter the private lounge where his staff was celebrating his latest app going public. He was furious, of course. She was deliberately misunderstanding him, but he had to admire her moxie.
You’re not the cousin I want to talk to, he had replied to someone named Rozalia when she had tried to set up a meeting a few days ago.
Gisella wasn’t either, but he found he wasn’t disappointed. Maybe he’d even left his wording open to interpretation, curious to see if she’d make another attempt to “persuade” him.
She really ought to be ashamed of herself, walking in here without an invitation, but he doubted she possessed such a thing. For starters, where would she keep it? There was absolutely no room for anything but sex appeal in that little black dress she was almost wearing.
He had thought her stunning when all he’d seen of her was loose waves of caramel hair, a slender back and an ass that could stop traffic atop legs that went for miles.
Tonight, she captivated him just as easily and completely. How? This was California. Beautiful women were low-hanging fruit here. He didn’t have a type, but found himself partial to everything about her. Her height, her buttermilk skin, her elegantly refined bone structure.
In a land where everything was fake from eyelashes to teeth to breasts, she stood out as a natural beauty. She wore makeup, but not a candy coating of it. Hers was applied in subtle shades that accentuated her high cheekbones and glossed her luscious mouth.
Coders in sweatshirts and khakis turned their heads to watch as she wove toward Kaine. The twenty-somethings adjusted their glasses and the forty-somethings sucked in their stomachs. The women in pencil skirts narrowed their eyes with envy.
Her aloof expression took no notice of anyone except him as she moved through mirror-ball sparkles that glittered off glowing white twigs against a bath of purple light cast by black bulbs.
“Gentlemen,” she said as she arrived into his circle. She barely raised her voice above the thump of the DJ’s playlist, neatly interrupting a movie producer trying to talk Kaine into investing in his latest blockbuster. “I need Mr. Michaels.”
Kaine had an idea where her audacity came from. Her father owned a well-respected advertising firm. She’d been raised in upper-class circles thanks to a private education. Even so, she was a goldfish, not a shark. One who still managed to blow a few bubbles and shoo the bigger fish away. They dispersed without hesitation, only looking over their shoulders to catch a glimpse of her slinky black dress and slinkier shoes.
Those tiny black patent belts enclosing her ankles would inspire a fetish in a priest.
Kaine dragged his attention back up her legs, fantasizing about the smoothness of those thighs against his palms and lips. Was she wearing matching midnight underwear beneath that short skirt? A wink of red? Something nude? Perhaps she was nude.
He bit back a groan of craving, dying to find out. And the top of that thing. He could ease it down with a fingertip and discover exactly how warm and round and heavy her perfectly formed breasts were. Lick at her nipples and watch a flush of pleasure stain her skin.
He arrived at cheeks hollow with dismay. Her eyes—green, he recalled, since the surreal lighting made the color indiscernible—shot sparks of indignation.
“You crashed this party, Ms. Barsi,” he pointed out, refusing to apologize for his ogling. “Don’t complain about the reception you receive.” He added a laconic, “Call security,” to the waiter who approached with a tray of champagne.
The server faltered.
“He’s joking,” Gisella said, stealing a flute of bubbly and smiling in a way that dazzled the confused server into smiling and ducking his head.
“I’m not,” Kaine assured her as the kid slipped away.
She only sipped and glanced over the crowd. “You call this a party?”
A deserved burn. The atmosphere was flatter than roadkill. Despite the pulse of music and the money made by everyone in the room, people stood in knots of downcast heads. Kids these days. They’d rather post a photo that they were there than be here.
“It’s Drummond, by the way. I told you that last week,” Gisella said. “When my grandmother married Benedek Barsi, she already had my mother.”
“Did she?” He scratched under his chin.
She sent him a sharp look. “What does that mean?”
“I do my homework.” Did she really not know?
He’d been intrigued by her from the first photo he’d seen, gaze drawn back to her image more than once as he’d learned all he could about Benny’s family. A few things had converged to make buying the Garrison estate a wise, last-minute move. He might not have been there, however, if his attention hadn’t already been snagged by her. His sources had revealed she’d been searching for a single earring for years and he’d seen an opportunity.
And, if he hadn’t known about her intense interest, he might have believed she’d been responding to his kiss in a very open, refreshing way. She hadn’t, of course. She had been trying to manipulate him. Even knowing that, he remained reluctantly fascinated.
“Have you been doing yours?” he asked her.
“Yes. How is Benny? Never mind. I don’t care. Unless he’s dead. That’s the only excuse I’ll accept for his avoiding my calls.”
Pressing her lips flat, she seemed to gather her composure, standing taller and squaring her shoulders. “I haven’t been able to reach him.”
“Then why are you here?”
“You know why. The earring. You wouldn’t meet Rozi so here I am. I’m willing to be generous.”
“Not interested,” he lied. He was far too interested in watching how she played this despite knowing she was trying to play him.
“I haven’t even given you a number.”
He shrugged. “Whatever you offer, I can receive double from someone else.”
For some reason, the way she said the man’s name—pithy and familiar—provoked a sudden, inexplicable tension in him.
“You know him?” He kept his poker face on, pretending equal disinterest as he scanned the crowd.
“I know of him. We haven’t met. You’re planning to sell it to him, then?” She was affecting nonchalance, same as him, but she had tells. Her fingers tapped the stem of the glass she held, betraying her nervous interest in his answer.
“I haven’t decided.”
Viktor Rohan had become a bit of a thorn in Kaine’s side, prodding him to sell the earring to him with ever-increasing incentives. Kaine wasn’t playing him like a fish. From what he knew about the man, Rohan wasn’t a man to be trifled with. Under other circumstances, Kaine would have happily parted with the bauble for a modest profit.
But then, Gisella would have no reason to be here, frowning over his funeral of a party.
“What if I say I’ll double Viktor’s last offer?” she asked.
Kaine was again impressed by her bravado. He named the most recent figure Viktor had sent him, which made her lashes quiver.
He smirked. “Ready to fold?”
“I’m not bluffing,” she bluffed. “I just hadn’t realized how quickly the stakes were rising. I’m prepared to pay that. Do we have a deal?” She offered her free hand.
“Oh, hell no. I don’t need the money and it’s clearly appreciating daily.” The value of its leverage with her was priceless.
He sipped his bourbon and her arm fell to her side.
“You’re quite desperate for this thing, aren’t you? Why?” The earring was pretty, Kaine supposed, but he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. “To sell it to Rohan yourself at a profit?”
“No.” She acted offended. “I told you. I want to give it to my grandmother.”
“It’s very special to her.”
Kaine had never understood attaching emotion to anything, least of all musty old objects. He didn’t even possess a favorite pair of jeans let alone a watch or a boat that he would grieve over sinking. Everything could be replaced, provided he kept his bank balance healthy enough to make the purchase.
As someone gambling in the tech industry, he didn’t even let the fluctuations in his cash flow bother him too greatly.
The only time he grew hot under the collar was when someone tried to take something from him. And someone had. A few weeks ago, her cousin Benny had blown a crater into Kaine’s net worth. The circle of investors whom Benny had assembled were all standing around the edge, throwing rocks to ensure he sank as quickly as possible.
That was a memory to hang on to, not the one where he had clasped that pointed chin and ravaged those pillowy lips with a hunger that sat in the pit of his gut right now, howling like a starving beast scenting more.
“I can’t be swayed by emotion,” he informed her, trying to burn away his ferocious thirst for her by finishing his neat bourbon in one fiery swallow. He cut his gaze down her front with dismissal, determined she wouldn’t know how thoroughly she was getting to him. “Not even by lust.”
Gisella had dressed to get past security without a lot of questions. There were always a few mistresses and trophy wives at events like this. All she’d had to say was, “I’m meeting my husband,” and she had sailed on in.
Now, however, as Kaine Michaels skimmed an appraising gaze over her while cynicism dug a curl into the corner of his mouth, she grew hot and wished she’d chosen a power suit.
At the same time, her brain picked apart his remark. Was he saying he felt lust toward her? That ought to offend her, not cause a seesaw of excitement and yearning. A flood of heat that was more pleasure than outrage began licking low in her belly.
She couldn’t help being deeply attracted to him, though. He’d been a force in a shirt with an open throat and suede jacket. Tonight, he wore a tuxedo with satin lapels over a shirt with hidden buttons. He ought to look like every other man in here, but from the cut of the shoulders to the break in his pant cuff over shiny, handcrafted Italian shoes, he was a man above the rest. One who knew it, too.
Trying to hide how deeply he mesmerized her, she said, “If I was here to seduce you, you would know it.”
The white of his teeth flashed. It wasn’t so much a smile of amusement as satisfaction. “I like a sense of humor, especially in my enemies. It keeps me from growing bored.”
“How am I your enemy? You’re angry with Benny.” If she left with nothing else tonight, she would understand why he was taking out his anger on her. “Tell me what you think he did.”
“I know what he did,” he said, turning so cold it was as if a door had been thrown open to the Arctic. A subzero blizzard swirled around her with his words. “He falsified mining samples and disappeared, framing me to look like the culprit. I’ve made explanations to my investors, but they aren’t buying it.”
“Wait, what?” She found her hand on his arm of its own accord, needing to steady herself.
He was like iron under the fabric of his jacket sleeve. He looked at her hand with a raised brow, making her lift it away self-consciously. Her pulse continued to bounce like a pinball.
She fought to recover and find her voice. Benny was a geologist. His exploration company operated as an arm of Barsi on Fifth. It allowed Barsi on Fifth, her employer, to offer its richest clientele a means of investing in gems and precious metals literally at ground level.
“Benny would never salt samples. Our entire family relies on the Barsi reputation remaining impeccable. We all do our part to keep it that way.”
“Yes, it would seem all of New York believes your family is beyond reproach. That’s why the investment consortium is blaming me for the fraud, turning my name to mud all the way down the Eastern Seaboard.”
She shook her head, wanting to sit down, but the room was nothing but high-top tables, glittering ice sculptures and gaggles of hoodies. The music and noise were getting to her and she noticed that people were watching them. It made her uncomfortable, now that Kaine had completely thrown her out of her element. She had to fight letting the cracks in her composure show.
“What exactly has Benny said?”
“Nothing. That’s why I had to get his attention. You’ve disappointed me, Gisella. I don’t think you want that earring nearly as badly as you pretend. I think you’re more interested in keeping Benny’s crime from coming to light. You’re trying to placate me. But this sort of mollification—” he circled his finger to encompass her painted lips to her painted toes “—is very last century. And entirely too predictable.”
His accusation sent a few more fractures zigzagging across her veneer of confidence. She had wanted to kiss him, not that she would admit it now. Not when he was so disparaging about something that had caused such a flagrant reaction in her it still put a scorch of vulnerability in her throat.
“Benny is probably at the site, trying to sort it out,” she insisted.
“The site is in Indonesia. His office said he’s in South America. So does his social media.”
“I’ll make some calls. Right now.”
“Knock yourself out.”
Her heart hammered like a trapped bird in her chest, unsure which direction to fly. With a sniff of determination, she moved into a quiet corner and quickly realized it was well past business hours in New York, even later in South America. She tried her uncle’s cell, biting her nail because he might not even pick up. He was still in Florida checking on Grandmamma and they might be having an early night.
He answered and they exchanged brief greetings. He was her boss at Barsi on Fifth along with being her uncle. He presumed she was calling about work.
“No, it’s about Benny,” she said. “Have you spoken to him lately? I’ve just heard the most bizarre rumor from Kaine Michaels.” She glanced around, not wanting to repeat what Kaine had said in case she was overheard.
Her uncle’s silence was very ominous.
“Uncle?” she prompted.
“Why are you talking to him?” She couldn’t tell if his inflection was disdain or trepidation.
“Kaine has Grandmamma’s earring. I tried to buy it at an estate auction last week.” She hadn’t told anyone what she was planning, wanting to surprise everyone with her triumph. Instead, things had spiraled into a bigger mess than she could have anticipated. “I came here to make him an offer, but he’s making some awful accusations. Benny needs to call Kaine right away and straighten this out.”
“For God’s sake, Gisella. I wish you had talked to me first.”
“Why? What’s going on?” A chill invaded her chest.
“I don’t know,” he said in a clipped voice. “I’ve heard the few rumors myself. I’m doing my best to quash them while I try to get hold of Benny and hear his side of it.”
“You don’t think he would actually—”
“I do not,” he assured her, believing as she did that Benny was honest, reliable and professional. “But I don’t trust Michaels. You shouldn’t, either.”
She glanced up and saw Kaine staring at her from across the room.
“He wouldn’t be this angry if he didn’t feel it was justified.” She understood that instinctively.
“Well, don’t antagonize him further,” her uncle ordered. “He’s a dangerous man.”
In many ways. He held her from afar with nothing more than an unbroken stare.
“I’ll, um, do my best to smooth things over. Explain that we’ll have answers soon.” A dent in the Barsi name could spell disaster for all of them.
“I’ll try Benny right now,” her uncle promised. “Tell Michaels I’ll have him get in touch as soon as possible.”
She doubted that would be enough for Kaine, but Gisella thanked him and ended the call. As she did, she noticed a message from Rozi. Her cousin had touched down safely in Hungary and was headed to her hotel for a nap.
Viktor Rohan’s mother had agreed to meet with Gisella after Gisella had leaned heavily on their distant bloodline connection. Gisella had been completely prepared to go herself, but Kaine had rebuffed Rozi’s request for a meeting with his annoying, You’re not the cousin I want to talk to.
In a fit of pique, Gisella had insisted Rozi take her meeting with the Rohans. She would handle Kaine Michaels. This time he wouldn’t get the better of her.
She had believed it right up until Kaine’s accusation had left her bobbing through the ether, completely unmoored. Benny would not have committed fraud. That much she knew. It wasn’t in his nature and he wouldn’t put the family’s reputation and livelihood in jeopardy.
“Can I get you a drink?”
Gisella glanced up to see a handsome thirty-something in a nice suit eyeing her as if she was the dessert selection of the buffet. He might have been one of the men talking to Kaine when she arrived, but she hadn’t taken much notice of anyone but the man she’d come to see.
“Finished your call?” Kaine said, appearing at her side with ninja suddenness. “Darling,” he added, dry and late with the endearment, clearly using it to step on the other man’s advances.
The other man melted away.
Kaine lightly skimmed his hand to the small of her back, setting her senses alight, breaking her voice as she tried to answer his question.
“Y-yes. My uncle will have Benny call you as soon as possible.”
“Wonderful,” he said with open sarcasm. “Let’s dance, then.”
She didn’t want to antagonize him further, but, “No one is dancing.”
“Leaders lead. You strike me as one.”
She snapped him a look, but that hadn’t sounded like more sarcasm. It seemed to be a sincere compliment. How would he know what she was like?
“Why else would you be here representing your family?” he taunted lightly. “You’re not a sacrificial lamb, are you?”
“No.” But she felt inordinately vulnerable. She had been thinking of him day and night, trying to hate him even as she had wished things had gone differently. Wished their kiss had been the beginning of something more.
That longing was still lodged in her throat with a sob of disappointment. At least now she understood why he was treating her with such disparagement.
This had to be a misunderstanding. Had to be.
And she was an independent sort. One who struck out on her own to get things done. One who would happily play envoy for her family, even if she found it uncomfortable to face down so much suspicion.
“Why don’t we take this discussion somewhere more private,” she suggested.
His eyes became narrow slits with a gleam of enigmatic obsidian. His smile was empty of humor as he drew his lips back against his teeth.
“That would be my pleasure.”