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'Would You mind moving? I'm afraid you're in the way.'
Rafe straightened in the doorway of the east gallery of Archangel, where he had been standing for the past few minutes observing the installation of the glass and bronze cabinets being brought in for the displaying of the Palitov jewellery collection. He turned now to look at the young lad who had just spoken to him so abruptly.
He seemed to be in his teens, and a couple of inches under six feet tall, dressed in the same faded denims and bulky black sweatshirt as the other workers, and wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his face.
A face that was a little too pretty for a boy, Rafe realised: arched dark brows above eyes the green of fresh moss, and surrounded by long and thick dark lashes, a pert nose with a light smattering of freckles, high cheekbones above hollow cheeks, with full and lush lips above a pointed and determined chin.
Yes, he was a bit too pretty, Rafe acknowledged ruefully, although he didn't seem to be having any trouble helping to wheel the display cases into place.
Rafe had arrived at the gallery at eight-thirty as usual, only to learn from his assistant manager that the Palitov crew had been here since eight o'clock. 'I was just looking for-'
'If you wouldn't mind moving now?' the boy repeated huskily. 'We really need to bring in the rest of the display cabinets.' Two of the more burly workmen had moved to stand beside and slightly behind the younger man, as if to emphasise the point.
Rafe frowned his irritation with that muscled presence; where the hell was Dmitri Palitov's daughter?
Those green eyes widened as Rafe still made no effort to shift out of the doorway. 'I don't believe your employer would approve of your lack of cooperation.'
'It so happens I'm only here because I'm looking for your employer,' Rafe replied in frustration.
A wary expression now entered those long-lashed dark green eyes. 'You are?'
'I am,' Rafe confirmed with a hard smile. 'It was my understanding that Miss Palitov would be here herself this morning to oversee the installation of the display cabinets.' He raised mocking and pointed brows.
The boy looked even less certain of himself now. 'And you are?'
His mouth thinned with satisfaction. 'Raphael D'Angelo.'
The boy winced. 'I had a feeling you might be.' The youth straightened. 'Good morning, Mr D'Angelo. I'm Nina Palitov,' she added as he made no effort to take her outstretched hand.
Nina had the satisfaction of seeing the man she now knew to be Raphael D'Angelo, one of the three brothers who owned the prestigious Archangel galleries, briefly lose some of his obviously inborn arrogance as those golden eyes widened with disbelief, the sculptured lips parting in surprise.
It gave Nina the chance to study the man standing in front of her. He was probably in his mid-thirties, or possibly a little younger, with long and silky ebony-dark hair styled rakishly to just below his shoulders, and with the face of a fallen angel. He had predatory golden eyes, sharp blades for cheekbones beneath that olive-toned skin, his nose long and aristocratic, sensuous lips that looked as if they had been lovingly chiselled by a sculptor, his jaw square-and at the moment tilted at an arrogantly challenging angle.
The perfectly tailored charcoal-grey suit and snowy white shirt did nothing to hide the muscled perfection of his taller than average frame-rather, it had no doubt been tailored to emphasise that masculinity! A suit that Nina belatedly realised had probably cost as much as a month's rent on any number of exclusive Manhattan penthouse apartments. The white shirt was of the finest silk, as was the pale silver tie knotted so meticulously at his throat, and his black leather shoes were obviously of the finest Italian leather.
As if all of that weren't enough of an indication of who he was, that softly modulated and educated English accent should have been the giveaway, added to which this man's olive complexion showed he was obviously of Italian descent.
Nina's gaze swept back up to that arrogant-and breathtakingly handsome-face. 'I'm guessing from your expression that I'm not quite what you were expecting, Mr D'Angelo?' she murmured ruefully.
Not what Rafe was expecting?
That had to be the understatement of the decade; it was bad enough that he had thought he was talking to a too-pretty boy, but discovering that boy was in fact a beautiful young woman, and Dmitri Palitov's daughter, was a little hard to accept. Palitov was almost eighty years old, and the woman now claiming to be Nina Palitov could only be in her mid-twenties at the most.
Or maybe Nina was Palitov's granddaughter, and for some reason was here in place of her mother?
Rafe forced the tension to ease from his shoulders.
'Not what, who,' he excused lightly, deciding to keep the 'pretty boy' mistake to himself as he finally briefly shook the hand she held out to him. A warm and artistically slender hand, the fingers long and delicately tapered, the nails kept short.
She looked up at him quizzically with those moss-green eyes. 'And exactly who were you expecting, Mr D'Angelo?'
'Your mother, probably,' Rafe dismissed dryly. 'Or possibly your aunt?'
She gave a rueful smile. 'My mother is dead, and I don't have an aunt. Or an uncle, either,' she added dryly as Rafe would have spoken again. 'Or any other family apart from my father,' she said softly.
Rafe blinked, eyes narrowing as he attempted to process the information this woman had just given him. No mother, no aunts or uncles, just her father. Which meant
'I'm the Miss Palitov you were told to expect, Mr D'Angelo,' she confirmed huskily. 'I believe I'm what some people might describe as being a child born in the autumn years of my father's life.'
And Rafe would be one of those people!
He'd had no idea that Dmitri Palitov's daughter would be so young. Had Michael known? Probably not, otherwise his brother would never have suggested that Rafe charm her! It was unusual for his big brother not to have all the facts, but this just went to prove that not even the meticulous Michael was infallible.
And this woman's identity probably also explained those two muscle-bound men now standing as silent and watchful sentinels at Nina Palitov's back. No doubt Daddy Palitov kept a very close guard over his young and beautiful daughter.
As if those bodyguards, and the information that this young woman was Dmitri Palitov's daughter, weren't disconcerting enough, she now reached up and swept the baseball cap from her head, releasing a waterfall of fiery red curls that framed the beauty of her face and cascaded over the slenderness of her shoulders before flowing riotously down almost to her waist.
And leaving Rafe in absolutely no doubt that she was a woman.
Rafe's preference in women had always been towards pocket-sized blondes, but as he saw the rueful amusement-at his expense-in those moss-green eyes, the slightly mocking curve to those lushly full lips, evidence, no doubt, that Nina Palitov found his discomfort amusing, he knew that he would enjoy nothing more at this moment than to take this beautiful woman in his arms before kissing that amusement from the sweet curve of those lush and pouting lips.
A move on his part that would no doubt cause those two muscle-bound sentinels to move with lightning speed in her defence.
Nina eyed Raphael D'Angelo beneath lowered lashes, knowing, by the glance he briefly gave at Rich and Andy as they stood behind her, that he had now realised helping to move display cases wasn't their only reason for being at the Archangel gallery.
She had been surrounded by the same bodyguards for most of her life, had grown so accustomed to having at least two of them watch over her day and night that she rarely noticed they were there any more. She now treated the eight men who made up her security detail more like friends than people employed by her father to ensure her safety.
Which was a sad reflection on what her life had become, Nina realised with a frown.
Admittedly her father was a wealthy and powerful man, and Nina knew better than most that with that wealth and power came enemies. But she had often thought wistfully of how nice it would be to be able to do as other people her age did, and just pop out to collect the newspaper or a carton of milk in the mornings, or a takeaway for dinner from a fast-food restaurant, or share a fun evening out with several girlfriends, without her bodyguards having to check out the venue first.
Or maybe go out for a date with an arrogant and dec-adently handsome man with the face of a fallen angel.
And exactly where had that ridiculous thought come from?
The long years of her father's protection meant that Nina was usually extremely shy when it came to talking to men; she certainly never had erotic fantasies about them the first time she met them!
She frowned up at Raphael D'Angelo, a man who could never be considered as being anything other than an arrogant and decadently handsome man with the face of a fallen angel.
'I have a lot to do here today, Mr D'Angelo,' she told him, hiding her shyness behind the briskness of her tone. 'So if there was nothing else?'
Rafe knew when he was being dismissed. And he also knew when he didn't like it!
He was in charge of the New York gallery at the moment, and it was time that Miss Nina Palitov and those muscle-bound goons standing behind her were made aware of that fact.
'There are a few things I would like to discuss with you first, if you would care to accompany me up to my office on the third floor?'
The blinking of those long dark lashes was the only evidence that she was surprised by his request. No doubt Daddy's money and power ensured that Miss Nina Palitov rarely, if ever, acceded to anyone's request for her to do anything.
Her expression was wistful as she gave a predictable shake of her head, causing that long cascade of fiery red hair to shimmer like a living flame in the sunlight pouring in through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her.
'I obviously don't have time at the moment. Perhaps later on this morning?'
Rafe's mouth tightened.
'I have several other appointments to deal with today.' But none, he knew, that Michael, at least, wouldn't expect him to cancel in favour of meeting with Dmitri Palitov's daughter, whenever it was convenient for her.
But Michael wasn't here right now, Rafe was, and-
Hell, just admit it, Rafe-the reason you're so damned irritated is because Nina Palitov is utterly gorgeous. And under other circumstances, in a different location-the two of them naked together in a silk-sheeted bed came to mind-he might even enjoy the challenge she represented, both sexually and to his authority.
But they weren't in a bed, that lush mouth wasn't his for the taking, and when it came to Archangel he was the one in charge.
She shrugged dismissively. 'In that case, I'm afraid the discussion will have to wait until tomorrow.'
Rafe took a step closer to her, only to find that the two men standing behind Nina Palitov took that same step forward, flanking her closely now as they both watched him between narrowed eyes.
'Call off your watchdogs,' he advised harshly.
She eyed him frowningly for several long seconds before slowly turning her head to look at the two men. 'I'm sure Mr D'Angelo poses absolutely no threat to me,' she assured them wryly before turning back to once again look challengingly at Rafe.
As if she believed his wealth and power also rendered him over-indulged and wimpish, a man who wouldn't stand a chance against these two muscle-bound men if they were to take exception to something he said or did.
Admittedly, the two of them together might be pushing it a bit, but Rafe had no doubts that in a one-on-one fight his hours at the gym, and his training in several of the martial arts, would ensure he could best either one of these two men, whether they chose to fight dirty or fair-and their threatening poses indicated it would probably be the former.
He forced the tension from his shoulders as he gave a deliberately wolfish smile as his appreciative gaze swept slowly over Nina Palitov.
'Oh, I wouldn't go so far as to say that I posed absolutely no threat to you, Miss Palitov,' he purred softly, his tone deliberately provocative.
Those beautiful moss-green eyes widened noticeably, a delicate blush creeping into her peaches-and-cream cheeks, and succeeding in making the endearing freckles on the bridge of her nose appear more prominent. At the same time her tongue flicked out nervously to moisten the lushness of those delectably plump lips. Lips that had no need for lip gloss to enhance their fullness or deli-ciously peach colour.
Those lips thinned now, as if Nina Palitov was well aware that Rafe was playing with her, and she didn't appreciate it.
'Would eleven o'clock be convenient to you, Mr D'Angelo?' she bit out huskily.
'I'll make sure that it is,' he drawled softly.
Nina was very aware that somewhere during the course of this exchange Raphael D'Angelo had taken control of the conversation-and her? His air of lazy confidence and power implied that he preferred always to be in control.
Even when he was in bed with a woman?
Nina felt the colour warm her cheeks for a second time in as many minutes as she realised that Raphael D'Angelo was responsible for bringing those totally inappropriate thoughts into her head.
Why were they so inappropriate?
She was twenty-four years old, with a slender figure, and the way men looked at her told her she wasn't unattractive. And Raphael D'Angelo was dangerously, overwhelmingly handsome in a swarthily Latin way that she realised made her nerveendings sizzle. They were both over twenty-one, so why shouldn't she indulge in a little light flirtation with him?
Because it wasn't something she was accustomed to doing, came the instant, and sad, reply. Her father was very protective of her, claustrophobically so at times, and it was a little difficult to enjoy a flirtation with an attractive man with two bodyguards always standing at her back. Especially when those same two bodyguards would no doubt report that behaviour back to her father if necessary.
Besides, she might have only just met him for the first time, but it was long enough to know that Raphael
D'Angelo really was too dangerous a man for Nina to practise her relatively inexperienced flirtation skills on.
She knew his reputation, of course; even she had heard the New York gossip about this particular D'Angelo brother, enough to know that Raphael D'Angelo's relationships with women were brief and numerous, and that there was no such thing as a light flirtation where this particular man was concerned.
'Do that.' Nina nodded abruptly, her defensive hackles rising.