Vows of Revenge
Revenge never tasted so sweet…
Calm and controlled Melodie Parnell has always wanted to experience insatiable passion. She thinks she’s found it in the bed of sinfully attractive Roman Killian. But in the sultry aftermath of their lovemaking, Melodie is catapulted back to reality when Roman reveals his true plans…to ruin her!
Satisfying the longing in Melodie’s entrancing blue eyes was a glitch in Roman’s plan. Convinced she’d been sent by his enemy, he intended to simply punish her! Except it seems that Melodie was innocent, and now Roman’s plan takes a different turn… Could his vows of revenge become vows of marriage?
Vows of Revenge
Her tone exactly reflected his feelings, as though she’d opened the curtain and stepped inside the narrow space where he stored his soul.
— Roman, Vows Of Revenge
Sometimes a story just sits in your head waiting with its foot tapping. That’s what this one did, characters patiently waiting as I took on The Sheikh’s Sinful Seduction, which pushed back Seduced Into The Greek’s World, and forced this story to stay off the page until the fall of 2014.
I kept referring to it as ‘The Photographer,’ not that I talk about my Works In Progress very much. But I knew that my heroine, who remained nameless until I was actually ready to write, would eventually pick up a camera. I had all kinds of scenes taking up bandwidth in my head, moments showing her accepting accolades for her photographs, bringing in a cast of thousands from my previous books.
Virtually none of those snippets made the final cut of the book. Such is the writing life. All the great strings of dialogue that make you feel like a genius at three a.m. don’t look quite as brilliant when you’re actually typing them.
What did stick was the kernel of this story–a revenge premise. I knew that Roman and Melodie would have a white-hot affair despite being mortal enemies and that they would have to find their way out of cruel betrayals. I loved the contrast of those opposite ends of the love-hate spectrum.
Roman is one of those heroes who guards himself so closely I didn’t know the depth of his backstory until I’d written two thirds of the book. Then he finally began to share and oh, he really deserves the right woman.
Melodie is one of those heroines who has been knocked around by life but hangs onto her ideals, wanting to believe the best in everyone, always hoping for the best outcome. That’s why Roman hurts her so badly. He dents her core sense of optimism, which is pretty unforgivable in her books.
Fortunately, he redeems himself. Which is the best part of reading a romance, right? I hope you enjoy this one.
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Vows of Revenge
Surrounded by old money and cold-blooded cynicism for the first part of her life, Melodie Parnell wasn’t half as ingenuous as she looked. In fact, she actively tried to give off an air of sophistication by straightening her curly brown hair into a shiny curtain, adding a flick of liquid liner to downplay her round blue eyes, and painting a bold red lipstick over her plump, pink lips. Her clothing choices were classic business style: a pencil skirt, a sweater set and her mother’s pearls.
At the same time, she privately offered people the benefit of the doubt. She believed the best whenever possible and always sought the brightest side of every situation.
That attitude had earned her nothing but contempt from her half brother and more than once resulted in a sting from social climbers and gold diggers trying to get closer to the men in her family. Being softhearted definitely had been her mother’s downfall. But, Melodie often assured herself, she wasn’t nearly as fragile or susceptible as that. The fact that she’d lost her mother very recently, and kept slipping into a state of melancholy as she faced life without her, didn’t make her vulnerable.
Yet, for some reason, Roman Killian took the rug right out from under her—by doing nothing except answering the door of his mansion.
“You must be the indispensable Melodie,” he greeted.
She was supposed to be immune to powerful men in bespoke outfits, but her mouth went dry and her knees went weak. He wasn’t even wearing a suit. He wore a casually tailored linen jacket over black pants and a collarless peasant-style shirt, three open buttons at his throat.
Not that she really took in his clothes. She saw the man.
He had black hair that might have curled if he let it grow long enough, tanned skin and gorgeous bone structure. Italian? Spanish? Greek? He certainly had the refined features of European aristocracy, but Melodie knew him to be self-made American. His brows were straight and circumspect, his eyes decidedly green with a dark ring around the irises. He was clean-shaven, urbane and acutely masculine in every way.
He met her gaze with an impactful directness that stole her breath.
“Roman Killian,” he said, offering his hand and snapping her out of her fixation. His voice was like dark chocolate and red wine, rich and sultry, but his tone held a hint of disparagement. No one was truly essential, he seemed to say.
“I am Melodie,” she managed to say. She watched his mouth as he clasped her hand in his strong grip. His upper lip was much narrower than his full bottom one. He smiled in the way men did when confronted with a woman they didn’t find particularly attractive, but were forced by circumstance to be polite toward. Cool and dismissive.
Melodie wasn’t offended. She was always braced for male rejection and surprised if she didn’t get it. It wasn’t that she was homely. She had just inherited her mother’s catwalk build and elfin features along with her pearls. The attributes were fine for modeling, but came off as skinny and exaggerated in real life. Spider-like and awkward—or so she’d been told so many times she tended to believe it.
So his indifference wasn’t a surprise, but her skin still prickled and she warmed as though the sun had lodged in her belly and radiated outward through her limbs with a disarming feeling that she was glowing.
She shouldn’t be so nervous. She’d still had a pacifier in her mouth when she’d begun glad-handling and rarely suffered shyness no matter how lofty the person she was meeting. Presidents. Royalty. Such things didn’t affect her.
Yet she found herself surreptitiously fighting to catch her breath, aware that she was letting her hand stay in his too long. When she tried to extract it, however, he tightened his grip.
“We’ve met,” he said with certainty. Almost accusingly. His eyes narrowed as he raked her face with his gaze, head cocked and arrested.
“No,” she assured him, but her pulse gave a leap while a romantic part of her brain invented a fanciful in another life soul mate scenario. She was very good with faces and names, though, even when a person wasn’t nearly as memorable as he was. And he was too young to remember her mother, not that he looked the type to thumb through fashion magazines in the first place. There was an off-chance he’d seen her in connection to her father, she supposed, but she was carving that particular man from her life one thought at a time so she didn’t bring him up and only said, “I’m quite sure we haven’t.”
Roman didn’t believe her, she could see it.
“Ingrid and Huxley aren’t with you?” He flicked a look for her clients to where her taxi had dropped her next to the fountain in his paved courtyard.
“They’ll be along shortly,” she said.
He brought his sharp gaze back to her face, making her quiver inwardly again. Slowly he released her and waved toward the interior of his home. “Come in.”
“Thank you,” she murmured, disconcerted by everything about him.
He was so masculine, so confident yet aloof. Secure, she thought, with a twist of irony. He’d made his fortune in security, starting with a software package but now offering global solutions of all kinds. It was one of the few things she knew about him. She hadn’t researched him much, mostly relying on what Ingrid had shared, turned off by the idea she might wind up reading about her half brother if she had looked up Roman online.
But knowing he was Anton’s competition had made her predisposed to like Roman. He also seemed to have a streak of magnanimity, supporting causes from homelessness to dementia research to donating computers to libraries. And he’d offered his home in the south of France for his employee’s wedding. Surely that meant he possessed a big heart under that air of predatory power?
“I didn’t expect a security specialist to have such a welcoming home,” she confessed, trying to ignore the sense that his eyes stayed glued to her narrow shoulders as she took in a modern house built with old world grandeur. “I imagined something very contemporary, made of glass and stainless steel, all sharp angles.”
The high ceilings held glittering chandeliers. A double staircase came down in expansive arms of delicate wrought iron and sumptuous red carpet over yellowed marble. The tiles continued through the huge foyer to an enormous lounge where a horseshoe sofa in warm terracotta would easily seat twenty.
Did he entertain often? Something in the way his energy permeated this airy interior so thoroughly made her think he kept this all comfortable splendor to himself.
“The sorts of things that people want to protect are often attractive. Jewelry. Art,” he supplied with a negligent shrug. “Six inches of steel works to a point, but surveillance and alarms allow for designs that are more aesthetically pleasing.”
“Are we being filmed right now?” she asked with a lilt of surprise.
“The cameras are only activated when an alarm is tripped.”
So it was just him was watching her, then. Nerve-racking all the same.
A formal dining room stood off to the right. It could be useful for the wait staff, perhaps, since the four hundred wedding guests would eat in tents outside. And, yes, the property allowed plenty of room for the ceremony, tents, a bandstand and a dance floor. Arched breezeways lined the house where it faced the Mediterranean. In the courtyard stood a square pool with a quarter circle taken out of it like a bite for a small dining area. Beyond its turquoise water a half dozen stairs led to a long strip of sandy beach. Off to the right a tethered helicopter stood on a groomed lawn. Once it had been removed, that space would be perfect for the ceremony and reception.
Melodie had grown up in luxury, but nothing as extravagant as this. Roman Killian was a very rich man. It was difficult to hide how awed she was.
She brought her gaze back to the bougainvillea training up the colonnades, and smaller pots of roses and geraniums and flowers she couldn’t identify. They gave off scents of anise and cherry and honey, dreamy and adding to the magical atmosphere of the place.
“This is all so beautiful,” she murmured, trying not to see herself as a bride, spilling in a waterfall of white lace down the stairs, emerging to blinding light and a strikingly handsome groom. The sunset would paint their future in rosy pink. Candlelight would burn like their eternal love.
She met Roman’s gaze and found him eyeing her as if reading her thoughts, making her blush and look away.
“It’s very generous of you to offer it,” she managed.
“Ingrid is an exceptional employee,” he said after a brief pause, making her think that wasn’t his real reason for offering his home. “Why didn’t you all come together? Are you not staying at the same hotel?”
“They’re newly engaged,” Melodie said wryly. “I’ve been feeling very third wheel since meeting them at the airport.” It was only four days, she reminded herself.
“Job hazard?” Roman guessed with a twitch around his mouth.
She couched a smile, suspecting he had a much lower tolerance than she did for witnessing nuzzling and baby talk.
“It can be,” she replied, aiming for circumspect, because this was only her second wedding and her first international society one. Her business was still so new the price tag hadn’t been clipped off, but he didn’t need to know that. She’d organized state dinners in her sleep, and this was exactly the sort of event she was ready to build her livelihood upon.
“How long have you been living here?” She was highly curious about him.
His manner changed. Their moment of commonality evaporated and she had the impression he stepped back from his body, leaving only the shell before her.
“It was completed last year. What else can I show you? The kitchen?”
“Thank you,” she said, hiding her surprise at how quickly she’d been shut down.
He waved her toward the end of the house where he introduced her to his personal chef. The Frenchman was standoffish but had nothing on his employer. She was able to get a few details about the catering cleared up as Roman stood watch, keeping her on high alert.
Roman expected the single pulse from his silenced watch to be a notification that the rest of his guests had arrived. One glance at the face told him it was actually a request that he review an important security alert.
Given that security was his business, he didn’t take the request lightly, but an immediate threat would have been flagged as such and dealt with at the perimeter. And he had a guest. This wisp of a woman flickering through his home like sunlight and shadow through a copse of trees fascinated him. The conviction that she was familiar was incredibly strong, yet he’d sensed no lie when she’d assured him they were strangers.
Roman had a reliable radar for lies, one he listened to without fail. The one time he’d ignored his gut and convinced himself to have faith, he’d lost everything up to, and almost including, his life.
So even though he should have forced himself to the panel on the wall to review the alert, he stayed with his PA’s wedding planner, keeping her under observation—partly, he admitted to himself, because her backside was delightfully outlined by her snug skirt, proving she was round and perky in the right places. He liked listening to her voice, too. Her accent wasn’t heavy like Americans from the Deep South, but it had a lick of molasses, sweet and slow with a hint of rough darkness as she elevated and dropped each word. Very engaging.
She puzzled him at the same time. He was used to women being overt when they were attracted to him. He wasn’t so arrogant he thought all of them were, but he worked out, wore tailored clothes and was loaded. These were all things that typically appealed to the opposite sex. She was blushing and flicking him nervous looks, fiddling with her hair, obviously very aware of him, but trying to hide it.
She wasn’t wearing a ring, but perhaps she was involved with someone. If she wasn’t, that shyness suggested she preferred slow, complex relationships. She didn’t sleep with men for the fun of it, he surmised, which was a pity because that was very much a quality he looked for in a woman.
Roman had trained himself to keep emotions firmly at bay, but a blanket of disappointment descended on him. He was attracted to her, but apparently it wouldn’t go anywhere. That was a shame.
Melodie had noticed his glance at his watch and offered a wry smile. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have left the happy couple to their own devices. They’re quite late, aren’t they?”
“It’s not like Ingrid,” he allowed. If it had been, she wouldn’t be his PA. He wasn’t a tyrant, but he didn’t tolerate sloppy behavior of any kind.
At the same time, he was fine with having Melodie to himself for a little longer.
“Perhaps you could show me where she’ll dress?” she suggested and showed him her smartphone. “I wouldn’t mind taking note of suitable photo locations. The bridal preparations and procession to the groom are always an important part of the day’s record.”
“Are they?” If he sounded disdainful, he couldn’t help it. He had lived hand to mouth for long enough that he didn’t see the point in extravagant ceremonies. Did he pay for top quality now that he could afford to? Absolutely. But weddings were already given too much importance without turning them into a Broadway musical—then filming behind the scenes footage for others to ooh and ahh over. As much as he appreciated Ingrid for her all the skills she brought to her work, he was hosting this performance strictly for business reasons.
“I take it you’re not a romantic,” Melodie said as though reading his cynicism. “Or is it just that you wish you hadn’t agreed to having your private space invaded?”
Both, he admitted silently, and realized he would have to work on controlling how much he revealed around this woman. She was very astute.
Or very attuned to him, which was even more disturbing.
“I’m a dedicated realist,” he replied, motioning for her to lead the way from the kitchen up a flight of service stairs to a breakfast room. “You?” he drawled.
“Hopeless optimist,” she confessed without apology. “Oh, this room is gorgeous.”
It was the second time she’d forced him to take stock of the choices he’d made in his surroundings. Part of him had been willing to go with the sort of design she’d said she expected of him: glass and chrome and clean, straight lines. But he’d spent enough time in an institution—juvenile, so not quite as stark as real prison—along with houses that weren’t his own. He’d wanted something that felt like a real home. Of course, it also had to be a smart investment that would fetch a tidy profit if his world ever collapsed again and he had to sell it. Which wouldn’t happen, but Roman was a plan B and C and D sort of man.
So even though he ate in this sunroom every morning, he wasn’t as charmed as she appeared to be by its earthy tones and view overlooking the lemon groves between the road and the fountain in front of the house. He had agreed with the architect that having the morning sunlight pour in through the windows made sense, as did the French doors that opened to the upper balcony that ran the side and length of the house facing the pool and the sea, but it could rain every morning for all the notice he took.
“I once had a fortune cookie that told me to always be optimistic because nothing else matters.”
Her remark caught him by surprise. His mouth twitched as he processed the irony. He quickly controlled it, but couldn’t help bantering, “They should all read, ‘You’re about to eat a dry, tasteless cracker.’”
“Ouch.” She mock frowned at him. “I dread to ask what you think of weddings if that’s your attitude toward fortune cookies. Dry and tasteless?” she surmised with a blink of her wide eyes.
She was definitely flirting with him.
Time to let her know that if she went down that road it would be for short-term amusement, not long-term commitment.
“The ceremony does strike me as a rather elaborate shell for a piece of paper that promises something about the future but ultimately has no bearing on what will really happen.”
His denunciation had her shoulders dropping in dismay. “That would be poetic if it wasn’t so depressing,” she informed him. “Weddings are as much a celebration of the happiness that has been achieved thus far as they are a promise of happily ever after.”
“You promise that, do you? Sounds like you’re taking advantage of the gullible.”
“Meaning that people who fall in love and make plans to share their lives are suckers? On the contrary, they haven’t given up hope,” she defended, lifting her chin with pretended insult.
“For?” he challenged, secretly enjoying this lighthearted battle of opinion.
“Whatever it is they seek. How far would you have come with your company if you hadn’t dreamed beyond what looked realistic? If all you’d done was aim low?” She gave him a cheeky smile as she walked past him into his private sitting room, meeting his eyes as though sure she had him. “See? Being an optimist, I believe I can convert you.”
“I’m not that easy to manipulate,” he stated, confident he’d maintained the upper hand. “But go ahead and try,” he added with significance.
“Okay— Oh.” The sitting room took up the corner of the house facing the water. More French doors opened to both the side and front balcony. The rest of the area was clearly the master bedroom.
Melodie had been so caught up in trying to be clever she hadn’t realized where she was going. She blushed. “I didn’t realize.” Why hadn’t he stopped her?
“There’s a guest room down the hall that Ingrid can use to dress,” he said dryly.
She should have hurried to find it, but her feet fixed to the carpet as she took in the luxurious room in varying shades of blue. The bed was obscenely huge and was backed by mirrors to reflect the view. The wall on to the balcony was made of glass doors that doubled back on themselves so many times they ended up tucked into the corners. The partition between outside and interior had essentially disappeared.
Filmy curtains hung in tied bunches at the corners of the bed, presumably to afford some privacy to the occupant—occupants? Plural?—if they happened to be in the bed with the doors open.
With that thought Melodie became acutely aware of the fact that she was a woman and Roman a man. He was tall and broad and his bed would accommodate his strapping body easily, along with any company he brought with him. She swallowed, trying not to betray the direction her thoughts were taking, even as she felt heat creeping through her, staining her cheeks.
As far as what he might be thinking, it was hard to tell whether he was attracted to her or just amusing himself at her expense.
“Oh, that’s very beautiful,” she said, letting the view draw her on to the balcony and away from the intimacy of his bedroom. She set her purse near her feet and used two hands to steady her phone while she took a snap. Her faint trembles grew worse as Roman came to stand next to her.
“How do you know Ingrid?” he asked.
Uncomfortable remaining where she could smell the traces of his aftershave, Melodie moved along the upper balcony, trying to pretend her dazzled state was caused by the band of turquoise just beyond the white beach before the blue of the sea deepened to navy. An indolent breeze moved through her sweater and hair doing little to cool her. It was more of a disturbing caress, really. Inciting.
“Our mothers went to the same prep school in Virginia.” Looking for cool in the wrought iron rail, Melodie grasped only heat, but she let the hard cut of metal into her palm ground her as she added, “My mother passed away recently and Evelyn came to the service. It was auspicious timing, with Ingrid recently becoming engaged.”
Melodie’s father had been instrumental in this new job of hers, of course, not that she intended to broadcast that. After insisting they invite Evelyn to say a few words about Melodie’s mother—a request that had surprised the woman when she hadn’t spoken to her old friend in years—Garner had insisted Melodie go talk to her. Ask her about her daughter. Melodie had realized after the fact that Garner had been fishing for info on Roman through his PA, but she didn’t know why. She’d taken her time following up with Evelyn a couple of weeks after the service and kept it to herself. Her father and brother didn’t even know she was here. Heck, they didn’t know she was alive. She preferred it that way.
“Helping with the arrangements has taken my mind off things,” she provided with a faint smile. “Weddings are such happy occasions. Far better than organizing a funeral.”
A pause, then he asked a perplexed, “Are you saying the funeral was so impressive it prompted this woman to ask you to arrange her daughter’s wedding?”
Melodie chuckled, even though the subject was still very raw for her.
“Not exactly. It was a grand affair,” she allowed, trying to keep the disdain out of her voice. Her mother had wanted something small and private. Her father had wanted publicity shots. Melodie had wanted her mother’s ashes. She’d done what she had to and the urn was now in her home, where she’d keep it safe until she could complete her mother’s final wish, to have her ashes scattered in Paris. “But I think Evelyn was being kind to me, suggesting I get into this sort of thing as a career—”
Oops. She hadn’t meant to reveal that. Shooting a glance at Roman, she saw his brows had gone up with that detail.
“Which isn’t to say I’m not qualified,” she hurried to assure him. This wouldn’t be amateur hour with monkeys stumbling around his home overturning his life, if that’s what he was thinking behind that analytical expression. Melodie intended to repay Evelyn’s faith in her by ensuring each detail of her daughter’s wedding went off perfectly and with the utmost taste. “I’ve done a lot of this type of thing, just hadn’t seen it as a career possibility. After she said what she did, I contacted her and we came to an arrangement.”
“So you’re just getting your company off the ground. There must be substantial investment up front,” he commented. “Flying here to scout the location. That sort of thing.”
“Some,” she replied with suitable vagueness. Complaining about money problems would not inspire his confidence. But the small policy she’d managed to take out on her mother’s behalf had merely paid for the worst of her health care bills. Pretending she could afford a weekend in the south of France was pure bravado and something Melodie would build into Ingrid and Huxley’s final bill.
“Your office,” she assumed as she moved away from that topic and along the balcony, arriving in front of a fresh pair of open doors. The interior of the room held a desk free of clutter surrounded by large, clear screens she previously had thought were an invention confined to sci-fi movies. “You’ll want to secure this on the day, obviously.”
A door led off one wall back into his bedroom. The opposite wall was completely covered in large flat screens. A single image of his company logo took up the black space on them.
Melodie stepped into the room, drawn by its spare yet complex set up. A blip sounded and Roman followed to press his thumb pad to a sensor.
“You’re quite the secret agent, aren’t you?” she teased.
“I like to consider myself the man who stops them,” he rejoined dryly.
She bit back a smile at his supreme confidence and said, “This would be a stunning angle for a photo, with the water in the background. Would you stand in for Ingrid?”
“Not likely,” he dismissed. Then smoothly turned things around with, “You’d make a prettier bride. I’ll take the photo.” He held out his hand for her phone.
She hesitated, far more comfortable behind the lens than in front of it. She always had been, but she really didn’t want to cause even the smallest ripple in such a big commission.
“If you prefer,” she murmured with false equanimity and readied her camera app, walking back outside again as she did so. “We’ll do a series of shots from when the father of the bride fetches her from her room and all the way down the stairs. I had thought she’d come down the interior ones, but these ones are better. The guests will see her approach and all this wrought-iron is so gorgeous. We’ll take some couple shots on the inside stairs after the ceremony.” She was thinking aloud as she went to the rail and turned to face him.
He fiddled with her phone, then said, “Ready.”
After a few of the app’s manufactured clicks, he lifted his gaze and commanded, “Smile. You’re getting married.”
Caught off guard, Melodie laughed with natural humor, then clasped an imaginary bouquet and channeled her best bridal joy, as if the man of her dreams was awaiting her.
Despite being mocked mercilessly through her teens, and suffering a self-imposed disaster that had put her off dating into her adult years, she had been telling the truth about being a romantic. She liked to believe a real life hero existed for her. She needed to believe it, or she’d become as depressed as her mother had been.
Her mother’s illness had held Melodie back from looking for him, but now, despite the grief abrading her heart, she was open to possibility. Willing to take a risk. For just this one moment she let herself imagine Roman was the man made for her. Her soul mate.
Roman’s intense concentration lifted sharply from the phone, pinning her in the steely needle of his hard stare.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Heat climbed up her chest into her throat.
She licked her lips and moved along the balcony toward the outer stairs, trying to escape the moment of silly make-believe, but now that it was in her head she couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to live with this savagely beautiful man.
Hard, she thought. But the right woman might be able to soften him.
The stairs descended in a curve to the area beside the pool. She stopped at the top and waved behind herself.
“She’ll have a train. We’ll fan it out here.” She twisted as she indicated the puddle of imaginary silk and lace. Lifting her gaze, looking back over her shoulder at him like this, was a bad idea. She was too far into the dream, unguarded and vulnerable. She had accidentally left herself open to his reading her thoughts. Her entire body became paralyzed in a kind of thrilled panic, as though he’d happened upon her naked, but she wasn’t afraid or ashamed. She was a nymph caught by a god.
He went statue-still.
Her phone looked small in his hand, clicking, but practically forgotten as he looked past it and kept his eyes on her, taking his time as he toured her shoulder blades and waist and bottom and legs. The term ‘brutally handsome’ came into her head and she understood it for the first time in her life. Roman was so gorgeous it was an assault to the senses, squeezing her lungs and pulsing heat under her skin.
He frightened her, but she wanted him to pursue her. It didn’t make sense, but from everything she’d heard about hormones, they were never big on logic. They were the opposite and hers were responding unusually well to him. That was what frightened her. Not him, per se, but her reaction to him.
He abruptly glanced at his watch. “Ingrid has been delayed,” he said, touching the device. “She thinks she sprained her wrist. She’s at the clinic and asks if we can reschedule.”
He could have asked Melodie to stay for lunch, but he didn’t. He had his driver take her back to her hotel. He wanted time to consider how he was reacting to her before pursuing her openly.
Powerfully was the answer to how he was reacting. Taking her photo had been an excuse to study her and he hadn’t seen a single thing he didn’t like. And even though he was far beyond getting hot over photos of women, clothed or not, for some reason he’d been fixated as he had watched her pose. There was definitely a strong sexual attraction between them, but more than that, he’d found her magnetic.
He shook off his perplexity as he pressed his thumb pad to the sensor in his office and tapped the screen, bringing up the security report he’d ignored earlier.
He swore aloud as the contents became clear.
Apparently the experts were right. He was a security genius, if late to the party this once. The myriad details that his gatekeeper and even his own eyes had missed had been refined by his closed circuit camera and proprietary software, filtered against online content, then tagged to warn him of an attack even more insidious than the one he’d suffered all those years ago.
A handful of matches had come up. He glanced through them, stomach knotting.
The surname comparison could be dismissed as coincidental. Melodie had given his guard the name Parnell, which had been tagged to Parnell-Gautier. Two and a half decades ago, a model named Patience Parnell had hyphenated to Parnell-Gautier when she married.
He flicked to a dated glamor shot from a defunct fashion magazine. Patience stared at him, young and nubile, her gamin face bearing a striking resemblance to Melodie’s big eyes and wide mouth. And there she was holding a baby girl named Charmaine. Not Melodie, but the date would put the baby into her early twenties today, precisely the age Melodie appeared to be.
Roman had met Patience once, very briefly, he recalled now. But he’d never considered her a direct threat because she’d gone into some kind of medical care several years ago.
His war, Roman had always believed, was with Anton Gautier and Anton’s father, Garner Gautier. Aside from one recent photograph, the daughter hadn’t been linked publically to either man since childhood.
He studied the photograph from a newsfeed dated two months ago. Melodie’s profile from her approach in the taxi today had been set against the profile in the news piece where a backlit woman, wearing a black hat with a netted veil, stood next to her American senator father as he bowed his head over a casket. Behind them stood Anton. The caption mentioned that Patience Parnell-Gautier was survived by her loving husband, stepson and daughter, Charmaine M. Parnell-Gautier.
How vile and just like Gautier to send his second spawn into Roman’s house like this. To use his PA’s mother to infiltrate his home.
He immediately dismissed any thought that Ingrid could be in on the scheme. She’d proven her loyalty again and again over the years. And it had been his idea to host the wedding, not hers. High society circles were small and tight. She had connections he didn’t. He wouldn’t care about being accepted at that level if it weren’t for the fact that it was the one area the Gautiers had an advantage on him. He’d volunteered his home to even the playing field.
What he couldn’t understand was how Melodie had captivated him to the point that he’d ignored the security alert rather than read it and ordered her off his property. He wasn’t so uncivilized he’d have had her thrown out the way he’d been physically expelled from her father’s campaign office twelve years ago. Battered and kicked so badly he could barely walk away. Anton had been the thief, but Garner had had the power to turn it around and call Roman the criminal. He’d had the power to ruin Roman, which he had.
A red haze of fury rose with the recollection. He would not allow the Gautiers to play him again. Rage urged him to hurt them, deeply, for daring to try.
Despite being a man who actively sublimated everything resembling feelings, he found himself able to taste delicious vengeance on the tip of his tongue. He’d been longing to get back at this family for years, biding his time, wanting to first overtake Gautier Enterprises in the arena that would cause them the most discomfort: financial.
For years, their two companies had been neck and neck in a two-horse race, both improving on the same software that he, Roman, originally had written and that Anton had convinced him his father would back. Instead, the men had stolen his product, finished it, then made a mint while Roman had scraped by for another five years, rebuilding everything he’d lost and finally entering the marketplace so far behind them he’d despaired of ever catching up.
Finally, early last year, he had begun to see parity. It wasn’t enough. Not for him. He’d risked everything and had thrown all his resources behind completely re-engineered software. The gamble had paid off. Corporations were dropping the dated, Gautier knock-off and stampeding to Roman’s new, far superior product.
Gautier’s bottom line had to be feeling the pinch by now. It followed that they would send in a scout, thinking to once again steal what they wanted and step back into the top position.
Roman wasn’t just going to win this time. He would send a message to the Gautiers they would never forget. He would crush them into nothing, starting by flattening their emissary without a shred of mercy.
His first instinct was to have Ingrid fire Melodie immediately, but he forced himself to more cool-headed contemplation. The Gautiers had let Roman believe he was on the path to success right up to the moment when they explained his services with the software design were no longer needed and they would be taking possession of his ticket to a better life.
Therefore, he would ensure he had another wedding planner in place, so there was no inconvenience to Ingrid. Melodie would lose her contract and any chance of continuing in that field. Nice of her to drop the detail that it was a new venture, he reflected. He didn’t think for a moment she was serious about making a career of wedding planning, but as with any con artist’s ruse, the Gautiers would have put funds behind making it seem real. He was glad to at least cost them their investment.
A few investigative keystrokes later, he saw that Melodie lived alone. Surprisingly modestly, he noted. So had he, back in the day, but he’d still lost his home and all he owned. He knew that his eye-for-an-eye retribution wouldn’t have the same impact. Melodie would simply run home to Daddy, but it was the right message, so he started the wheels rolling on getting her kicked out.
The final touch would be the simple, crystal-clear message that they’d failed. The sweetest retaliation of all.
Melodie had clearly pulled the rookie move of plugging her phone into the charger without checking that it was properly connected. When she pulled it off, one foot out the door to meet Ingrid and Huxley and leave for Roman’s, she saw it had not only failed to charge, but had lost the four percent it had had. Dead as a door nail.
Sparing a moment to throw it into the safe with her passport, she wound up putting her whole purse inside. She’d take a credit card as a just-in-case, but it was only going to be a quick lunch in a private home. She didn’t need to pack a bag.
Okay, yes, her mind was racing a mile a minute and she couldn’t make a rational decision to save her life. She was not just nervous but excited. Last night with Ingrid and Huxley it had been all she could do to keep her chatter confined to the suitability of Roman’s house as a venue for the wedding. The whole time she’d been longing to pump her client for more information on Roman, but she’d managed to wait until bed before doing a bit more online snooping. Then she’d lain awake fantasizing about him—creating scenarios in her head she hadn’t ever starred in before, but wanted to with him.
A short while later, having met up with Ingrid and Huxley en route, Melodie barely kept herself from dancing in place as Roman opened his door to them.
“I’m so sorry,” Ingrid moaned as they entered. “I slipped in the tub the other night and didn’t think it was that bad, but by the time we were on our way here yesterday, it was like this.” She motioned a ballooned wrist.
“She wanted to wait until we’d finished here before going to the clinic, but she was fighting tears in the car,” Huxley said. “I couldn’t let it go untreated.”
“Of course not,” Roman murmured smoothly. “I’m glad it’s just a sprain, and won’t impact your typing and filing once your vacation is finished.”
Ingrid giggled. “He’s being funny,” she said to Melodie over her shoulder. “The office is paperless and we do almost everything talk to text.”
Melodie smiled, wishing that Ingrid and Huxley weren’t pressed to each other like a pair of bubbles that were about to become one. She really needed them to diffuse all this aggressive male energy coming her way. It was as if Roman had developed a ten-fold power of masculinity overnight and it was now all beamed directly at her.
“Excellent photos, by the way. You have a hidden talent,” Ingrid said to her boss, thankfully drawing his attention for a brief moment.
He only said, “The camera loves her,” then trained his intent gaze back onto Melodie as though searching for something.
Huxley wanted to know what they were talking about and Melodie immediately regretted showing the photos to Ingrid. She’d been trying to explain the potential for wedding photos, but now had to brush aside Ingrid’s gushing with a brisk, “I was hamming.”
The final shot, where she’d been looking back at Roman, was the most disturbing. Her slender figure against the ivory backdrop of the mansion’s west wing had projected elegant femininity while her expression had been one of sensual invitation. She hadn’t meant to be so…revealing.
Embarrassment struck once again as yesterday’s unfounded yearnings welled anew. This was why she hated having her picture taken. Too much of herself became visible.
“Why don’t we go outside and you can take a few photos yourself?” she suggested, trying to distract everyone.
As they sat down by the poolside for a light lunch, Roman continued to study Melodie, biding his time, confident yet highly cautious. She was a surprisingly dangerous woman beneath that projected innocence.
He’d thought her pretty yesterday, which had apparently been enough to mesmerize him. Today, having seen the glimpse of unfettered beauty in her photos, he now caught flashes of stunning attractiveness in her as she smiled and exchanged banter with Ingrid and Huxley.
The truth was he was having trouble remembering why he shouldn’t be drawn to her. He told himself he was giving her enough rope to hang herself, but deep down he wondered if he was putting off the denouement of his plan so he could spend a few more minutes admiring her.
It was sick and wrong. She was his enemy. Yet he suddenly found himself ensnared in the meaningful look she was sending him. She practically spoke inside his head as she flicked a rueful glance toward the couple who had had to take a break from eating to rub noses. See? It never stops.
It was an odd moment of being on exactly the same wavelength. An urge to chuckle over their private joke rose in him while the sparkle in her eye and the flash of her smile encouraged him.
What the hell? How could he be gripped by anything except the fact she was here to commit a crime against him?
“Now that you’ve seen the place, shall I tell my staff it’s set in stone?” he asked Ingrid, pulling them all back to the supposed business at hand. Trying to put his train of thought back on its rails.
“Please,” Ingrid said, offering him a look of earnest gratitude. “And I can’t thank you enough. I’m still reeling that you’ve been so kind as to offer this. It’s his fortress of solitude,” she added in a teasing aside to Melodie. “No one is ever invited here.”
Roman brushed off the remark with a dry smile, but felt the weight of Melodie’s curiosity. He ignored the prickle of male awareness that responded to the intrigue in her gaze, set his inner shields firmly into place, and wrote off a trickle of anticipation as a premonition of threat that he would heed.
“We all need a retreat where we can work in peace,” he said, partly to tantalize her—your move, he was saying—but his house was more than a sanctuary. It was a statement that he had arrived and hosting the wedding would publish that headline.
“Well, it helps a great deal having a central location to bring the families into, since they’re coming from far and wide,” Huxley went on. “We appreciate it.”
Roman offered another vague smile, covering up the fact that he was very aware that Huxley’s father was a highly placed British ambassador in the Middle East, and the rest of his relations were blue bloods from the UK. Ingrid’s were old money Americans, including an aunt married to a German sitting on the EU Council of Ministers. Ingrid’s maid of honor was the daughter of a Swiss banker. The event was a Who’s Who of the international renowned and elite.
Being hosted by the son of a New York prostitute.
This was his entrée, he reminded himself dourly, wishing he felt more enthusiasm, but feeling more taken with the cat-and-mouse game he was playing with Melodie. What did it say about him that base things such as competition and survival still preoccupied him?
“How did you get into security software development?” Melodie asked, nearly prompting a sarcastic, Really? out of him.
He didn’t allow himself to be suckered by her solemn expression of interest. It struck him that she might not be here to steal, merely to damage. Her family had threatened to use his background to discredit him once before. They wouldn’t be above trying it again. Perhaps she intended to sabotage his hosting of the wedding, removing his chance to grow acquainted with the world’s top influencers.
He met her quietly lethal question head on, neutralizing any bombshells she might be poised to detonate by getting there first.
“I was arrested at fourteen for hacking into a bank’s network server.”
“Are you serious, Roman?” Ingrid cried on a gasp of intrigue, cutlery rattling onto the edge of her plate. “I had no idea,” she exclaimed, eyes wide with delight in the scandal. “You’re getting information out of him I never did, Mel!”
Melodie’s ridiculously long lashes swept down in a hint of shy pleasure, betraying that she enjoyed the thought of having power over him.
Irritated by the amount of truth in Ingrid’s remark—Melodie was the reason he was going against habit and bringing up his past—Roman finished the story. If it left this table he was determined it would be framed as closely to the truth as possible, and not twisted to annihilate him the way Melodie’s father had threatened.
“Once I realized I could outsmart adults, the game was on to see how far I could go,” he said frankly. “The security specialist who caught me, a tough, ex-marine named Charles, was impressed, especially because I was self-taught. Once I did my stint in juvenile detention, he brought me on to his payroll. Taught me how to use my talent for good instead of evil,” he summed up with mild derision.
Melodie’s surprise appeared genuine.
“You weren’t expecting honesty?” he challenged.
“It’s not that. I’ve just never met anyone with a natural ability for programming.” A shadow flickered behind her eyes, something he barely caught, but it colored her voice as she said, “I thought that sort of thing was a myth.”
She was talking about her brother, he was certain of it, but her smile wasn’t sly. She wasn’t trying to trick him or win him over. No, her comment was more of an inward reflection and a hint of confusion. Wondering if Anton was really as good as he’d always claimed?
As quickly as Roman formed the impression, her expression changed and he was looking at a different woman, one who seemed open and engaging, her cares forgotten in favor of enjoying a lively conversation.
“I’m certainly not intuitive with them. Someone had to show me how to set up my email on my tablet.”
And there was the I’m harmless claim Roman had been anticipating since he had realized who she was.
The conversation moved on to contacts and wedding arrangements. Iced coffees replaced the white wine everyone had sipped with lunch. Huxley said something about the dock and took Ingrid to inspect it.
Melodie made no move to follow, choosing instead to shift forward slightly and remove her sweater, revealing a matching sleeveless top that clung lovingly to her breasts as she twisted to drape the sweater over the back of her chair.
“I didn’t expect it to be this warm. It’s fall at home. Quite wet and chilly.” She sat straight and, as if she felt the chill across the Atlantic, her nipples rose against the pale lemon of her top.
A base male fantasy of baring those breasts formed in his mind. He saw pink tips resembling cherries melting off scoops of ice cream. He wasn’t a breast man per se, but the languid image of caressing and licking the swells, working his way to the sweet, shiny niblet at the peak, was so tangible he had to part his thighs to accommodate the pool of erotic heat that poured into his groin.
At the same time he realized conversation had stopped. She was very still.
He lazily brought his gaze up and realized she’d caught him blatantly ogling her. A strange jolt hit him like an electrical charge, deep in his gut and far stronger than a zing of static. It was like a full current that reverberated in his chest, making his heart skip a beat and his abdomen tighten.
Her blue eyes held his, fathomless and not the least offended. In fact, her reaction to his masculine interest was arousal. He’d seen it in the tightening of her nipples and read it now in the confused shimmer of excitement and indecision expanding her pupils. Her lashes quivered, eyes shiny, and the tip of her tongue wet her lips.
The pull behind his thighs became more insistent. He wondered if he had ever experienced a more carnal moment.
She swallowed and jerked her gaze from his as though it was a physical wrench of muscle from bone.
He mentally berated himself for letting her see his interest, highly irritated by how easily she had got to him. It was time to drop the ax.
“Does, um, he come around the office much?” she asked, gaze scanning restlessly toward the water. “Are you used to their displays?”
Who? he almost growled, then remembered two other people were here. Ingrid and Huxley. They held hands and bumped shoulders as they staggered, love drunk, across the sand.
Roman was behaving almost as inebriated, forgetting they were even here, manufacturing lurid fantasies of possessing a woman too lethal to imbibe. He tried to shrug away the strongest wave of sexual attraction he’d ever felt toward a woman and almost wondered if she’d slipped him something.
“He might, but I don’t,” he replied belatedly, forcing his mind back to the conversation. “The whole point in being on the cutting edge of technology is to use it.” He chinned upward to his office, rebaiting his hook. “I often telecommute.”
“And Ingrid is your avatar in New York?” she guessed.
That took him by surprise. He almost chuckled, then caught himself, dismayed by how easily she kept disarming him. He eyed her, searching for the source of her power. “I hadn’t looked at it that way. I suppose she is.”
“Working from home always seemed so ideal to me,” she mused, propping her chin on her hand. “But now I’m doing it, I find I’m becoming a workaholic, never letting it go. I keep sitting down for one more thing and losing another two hours.”
“You live alone, then,” he said, picking up what he thought she wanted him to deduce. It shouldn’t please him to hear she was single. She was nothing to him, certainly not a woman he’d bed. Not in these circumstances. Perhaps his libido found her leggy build stimulating. That faint scent of citrus and roses emanating from her skin was pure seduction, but as much as he hated her family and wanted revenge, he wouldn’t stoop to grudge sex. He didn’t intend to touch her.
She could go ahead and offer herself, though. Rejecting her advances would make for a delightful twist. He wondered if she’d take this game of hers that far and decided he would make it easy for her to humiliate herself.
A pulse of expectancy tugged at him.
This was a chess match, not a flirtation, he reminded himself.
“I do,” she answered, fingertips grazing the pearls at her throat where he thought he saw her pulse fibrillating. Her glance went to the house. He suspected she was mentally recalling whether she’d seen evidence of a paramour in there. She hadn’t. He kept his companions out of his private space.
“Me too,” he provided.
Melodie’s flushed cheeks darkened with a deeper blush as she cut a glance toward him, perhaps trying to work out whether his remark was a signal of attraction.
There was no use pretending otherwise. She’d already caught him lusting so he let her see that, yes, something in him found her appealing. He didn’t understand how it could happen when he held her in such contempt, but he rather enjoyed the fact that she was so disconcerted by her own response as she read his interest. Her reaction was too visceral to be fake, which was probably why he was aroused by it.
It was a bad case of misguided chemistry. She certainly wasn’t desirable to his rational mind, but maybe it was the risk of the situation that he found compelling. He’d developed a taste for plundering in his early years. Not of women. He was actually very cautious with how he approached relationships, but he loved finessing his way past defenses, exposing closely guarded secrets. He liked to prove he could. It filled him with enormous satisfaction.
“Where is home?” he asked. He’d read the answer yesterday, but he liked seeing how his attention put her in a state of conflicted sexual awareness.
“Virginia,” she answered, smile not sticking. “For now. I’m considering a move to New York though.”
“Don’t bother,” he said instinctively, then closed his mouth in distaste at reacting so revealingly. “It’s a perfectly livable city, but I don’t care for it,” he said in explanation. “More than my share of unpleasant memories,” he added, to see if she’d pick up that the filthiest ones involved her family. Others were so heartbreaking he pushed them to the furthest reaches of his mind.
She only murmured, “I feel like that about Virginia.”
Her tone exactly reflected his feelings, as though she’d opened the curtain and stepped inside the narrow space where he stored his soul. It was so disturbing he bristled, but she didn’t seem to notice.
Her wrinkled brow relaxed and she forced a cheerful smile. “I need a fresh start. And you’ve inspired me now with your talk of telecommuting. Tell me how you manage it. Ingrid said you’re a global company, so I assume you travel a lot? I expect I will, too, as I become more established. What are the pitfalls and best practices?”
She was very smooth in her way of bringing the conversation back to his business. He had to admire her for her dogged stealth.
“The happy couple is returning,” he noted, avoiding answering by directing her attention to where Ingrid and Huxley had stopped at the far end of the pool, admiring the view of the beach.
Ingrid glanced at him and he inferred that a consultation was requested.
He stood and held Melodie’s chair, getting another eyeful of her breasts, not intentionally, but he was a man and they were right there.
Her sultry cloud of scent filled his nostrils, imprinting him with the image of marble and turquoise and sunlight off dishes so he would never forget this moment of standing here, her lithe frame straightening before him. She had a slender waist and hips he longed to grip so he could press forward, bend her to his will, cover and possess. He had to school himself against setting a proprietary hand on her back as they moved to where the bride and groom were debating logistics.
What the hell was it about her?
She moved with remarkable grace, he noted. Not so much skinny as long limbed. A thoroughbred. Not a mutt like he was. If he didn’t have so much contempt for her bloodline, he might have questioned whether he was good enough for her.
Instead, he was the one with ethics while her sort wore an air of superiority that was only a surface veneer of respectability provided by old money. Perhaps she wasn’t overt about thinking herself better than those around her, not the way her father had been, and perhaps she didn’t act entitled, but she was among her own with Ingrid and Huxley. She took it for granted she was accepted. He couldn’t help but appreciate that confidence.
“Would the guests moor here overnight?” Huxley asked.
“That’s up to Mr. Killian,” Melodie deferred, turning to him.
“Roman, please,” he said dryly. She could use his first name until he made his position clear, which would be about five minutes from now. “There’s a shoal to be wary of,” he said to Huxley, stepping forward so he could point.
He was fully aware of Melodie’s proximity to his own. He had no intention of bumping her though and actually reached out absently to ensure he didn’t.
Melodie was the one who recoiled in surprise, taking a hasty step backward.
He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, heard her squeak of shock and snatched again, more deliberately.
She was already tipping backward. He missed her, tried again. Their fingertips brushed, but he failed to catch her. Her face pulled into a cringe as she fell backward into the deep end of the pool. Roman stepped back from the splash and stared at her one shoe caught in the grate.