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Being with Mateo soon made Bailey forget all the reasons she'd vowed to avoid romantic entanglements. But falling ...
Being with Mateo soon made Bailey forget all the reasons she'd vowed to avoid romantic entanglements. But falling into bed with him could lead her dangerously close to revealing all her secrets and falling in love.
When Bailey had arrived at this exclusive Sydney address moments ago, she'd hitched her battered knapsack higher as she'd studied first the luggage, set neatly by that door, then the broad back of a masculine frame standing alongside. Busy checking his high-tech security system, Mateo Celeca had no idea he'd had company. Bailey wasn't normally one to show up unannounced, but today was an exception.
Remembering manners, Mateo's bemused expression eased into a smile genial but also guarded.
"Forgive me," he said in a deep voice that hinted at his Mediterranean ancestry. "Do we know each other?"
"Not really, no. But your grandmother should have rung. I'm Bailey Ross." She drove down a breath and thrust out her hand. But when Dr. Celeca only narrowed his gaze, as if suspecting her of some offense, Bailey's smile dropped. "Mama Celeca did phone didn't she?"
"I received no phone call." Sterner this time, that frown returned and his informal stance squared. "Is Mama all right?"
"As thin as ever?"
"I wouldn't say thin. After enjoying so much of her Pandoro, I'm not so thin anymore, either."
At her grin, Mateo's cagey expression lightened. A stranger lands on your elite North Shore doorstep with a half-baked story, looking a mess after fifteen hours in the air, who wouldn't dig a little deeper? But anyone who knew Mama Celeca knew her delicious creamy layer-cake.
Looking like a sentinel guarding his palace, Mateo patiently folded his arms over the white button-down shirt shielding his impressive chest. Bailey cleared her throat and explained.
"This past year I've backpacked around Europe. I spent the last months in Italy in Mama Celeca's town. We became close."
"She's a wonderful woman."
"She's very generous," Bailey murmured, remembering Mama's final charitable act. She'd as good as saved Bailey's life. Bailey would never be able to repay her, although she was determined to try.
When a shadow dimmed the light in the doctor's intelligent dark eyes, fearing she'd said too much, Bailey hurried on.
"She made me promise that when I arrived back in Australia, first thing, I'd drop by and say hello." She stole another glance at his luggage. "Like I said not a good time."
No use delaying her own day, either. Now that she was home, she needed to decide what her next step in life would be. An hour ago she'd suffered a setback. Vicky Jackson, the friend she'd hoped to stay with for a couple of days, was out of town. Now she couldn't go forward without first finding a place to sleep—and finding a way to pay for it.
Mateo Celeca was still studying her. A pulse in his strong jaw began to beat before his focus lowered to his luggage.
Bailey straightened. Time to go.
Before she could take her leave, however, the doctor interjected. "I'm going overseas myself."
"Among other places."
Bailey frowned. "Mama didn't mention it."
"This time it'll be a surprise."
When he absently rotated the platinum band of his wristwatch, Bailey took her cue and slid one foot back.
"Well, give her my love," she said. "Hope you have a great trip."
But, turning to leave, a hand on her arm pulled her up, and in more ways than one. His grip wasn't overly firm, but it was certainly hot and naturally strong. The skin on skin contact was so intense, it didn't tingle so much as shoot a bright blue flame through her blood. The sensation left her fizzing and curiously warm all over. How potent might Mateo Celeca's touch be if they kissed?
"I've been rude," he said as his hand dropped away.
"Please. Come in. I don't expect my cab for a few minutes yet."
"I really shouldn't—"
"Of course you should."
Stepping aside, he nodded at the twelve-foot-high door at the same time she caught the scent of his aftershave subtle, woodsy. Wonderfully male. Every one of her pheromones sat up and took note. But that was only one more reason to decline his invitation. After all she'd been through—given how narrowly she'd escaped—she'd vowed to stay clear of persuasive, good-looking men.
She shook her head. "I really can't."
"Mama would have my head if she knew I turned a friend away." He pretended to frown. "You wouldn't want her to be upset with me, would you?"
Pressing her lips together, she shifted her feet and, thinking of Mama, reluctantly surrendered. "I guess not."
"Then it's settled."
But then, suddenly doubtful again, he glanced around. "You just flew in?" He asked and she nodded. He eyed her knapsack. "And this is all your luggage?"
Giving a lame smile, she eased past. "I travel light." His questioning look said, very.
Mateo watched his unexpected guest enter his spacious foyer. Sweet, he noted, his gaze sweeping over her long untreated fair hair. Modestly spoken. Even more modestly dressed.
Arching a brow, Mateo closed the door. He wasn't convinced.
The seemingly unrehearsed sway of hips in low-waisted jeans, no makeup, few possessions.Bailey Ross had described his grandmother as "very generous," and it was true. In her later years Mama had become an easy touch. He didn't doubt she might have fallen for this woman's lost-kitten look and his gut—as well as past experience—said Miss Ross had taken full advantage of that.
But Mama was also huge on matchmaking. Perhaps Bailey Ross was here simply because his grandmother had thought she and her grandson might hit it off. Given how she tried to set him up with a "nice Italian girl" whenever he visited, it was more than possible.
His first instinct had been to send this woman on her way but he was curious, and had some time to spare. His cab wasn't due for ten minutes.
Taking in her surroundings, his visitor was turning a slow three-sixty beneath the authentic French chandelier that hung from the ornately molded second-story ceiling. The crystal beads cast moving prisms of light over her face as she admired the antiques and custom-made furnishings.
"Dr. Celeca, your home is amazing." She indicated the staircase. "I can imagine Cinderella in her big gown and glass slippers floating down those stairs."
Built in multicolored marble, the extravagant flight split midway into separate channels, which led to opposite wings of the house. The design mimicked the Paris Opera House, and while the French might lay claim to the Cinderella fable, he smiled and pointed out, "No glass-slippered maidens hiding upstairs, I'm afraid."
She didn't seem surprised. "Mama mentioned you were single."
"Mentioned or repeated often?" He said with a crooked, leading grin.
"Guess it's no secret she's proud of you," Bailey admitted. "And that she'd like a great-grandchild or two."
Be that as it may, he wouldn't be tying any matrimonial knots in the foreseeable future. He'd brought enough children into the world. His profession—and France—were enough for him.
She moved to join him. Her smile sunny enough to melt an iceberg, her eyes incredibly blue, Bailey and Mateo descended a half dozen marble steps and entered the main reception room. Standing among the French chateau classic decor, pausing before the twenty-foot-high Jacobean fireplace, his guest looked sorely out of place. But, he had to admit, not in a bad way. She radiated fresh—even as she suppressed a traveler's weary yawn.
Was there reason to doubt her character? Had she fleeced his grandmother or was he being overly suspicious? Mama could be "very generous" in other ways, after all.
"So, what's first on the itinerary?" She asked, lowering into a settee.
"West coast of Canada." Mateo took the single saloon seat. "A group of friends who've been skiing at the same resort for years put on an annual reunion." The numbers had slowly dwindled, however. Most of the guys were married now. Some divorced. The gathering didn't have the same feel as the old days, sadly. This year he wasn't looking forward to it. "Then on to New York to catch up with some professional acquaintances," he went on. "Next it's France."
"You have friends in Paris? My parents honeymooned there. It's supposed to be a gorgeous city."
"I sponsor a charitable institution in the north."
Her eyebrows lifted as she sat back. "What kind of charity?"
"Children without homes. Without parents." To lead into what he really wanted to know—to see if she'd rise to any bait—he added, "I like to give where I can." When she bowed her head to hide a smile, a ball of unease coiled low in his stomach. With some difficulty, he kept his manner merely interested. "Have I said something funny?"
"Just that Mama always said you were a good man." Those glittering blue eyes lifted and met his again. "Not that I doubted her."
Mateo's chest tightened and he fought the urge to tug an ear or clear his throat. This woman was either a master of flattery or as nice as Mama obviously believed her to be. So which was it? Cute or on the take?
"Mama is my biggest fan as I am hers," he said easily. "Seems she's always doing someone a good turn. Helping out where she can."
"She also plays a mean game of Briscola."
He blinked. Cards? "Did you play for money?" He manufactured a chuckle. "She probably let you win."
A line pinched between Bailey Ross's brows. "We played because she enjoyed it."
She'd threaded her fingers around the worn denim knees of her jeans. Her bracelet was expensive, however—yellow-gold and heavy with charms. Had Mama's money helped purchase that piece duty free? If he asked Bailey straight out, what reply would she give?
As if she'd read his mind and wasn't comfortable, his guest eased to her feet. "I've held you up long enough. You don't want to miss your flight."
He stood too. She was right. She wasn't going to admit to anything and his cab would be here any minute. Seemed his curiosity with regard to Miss Ross's true nature would go unsatisfied.
"Do you have family in Sydney?" He asked as they crossed the parquet floor together and she covered another yawn. "I was raised here."
"You'll be catching up with your parents then."
"My mother died a few years back."
"My condolences." He'd never known his mother but the man he'd come to know as Father had passed away recently. "I'm sure your father's missed you." But she only looked away.
Walking alongside, Mateo rolled back his shoulders. No mother. Estranged from her father. Few possessions. Hell, now he wanted to write her a check.
He changed the subject. "So, what are your broader plans, Miss Ross? Do you have a job here in town to return to?"
"I don't have any real concrete plans just yet."
"Perhaps more travel then?"
"There's more I'd like to see, but for now, I'm hanging around."
They stopped at the entrance. He fanned open the door, searched her flawless face and smiled. "Well, good luck."
"Same to you. Say hello to Paris for me."
As she turned to walk away, hitching that ratty knapsack higher on one slim shoulder, something thrust beneath Mateo's ribs and he took a halting step toward her. Of course, he should let it alone—should let her be on her way—but a stubborn niggling kept at him and he simply had to ask.
"Miss Ross," he called out. Looking surprised, she rotated back. He cut the distance separating them and, having danced around the question long enough, asked outright. "Did my grandmother give you money?"
Her slim nostrils flared and her eyebrows drew in. "She didn't give me money."
Relief fell through him in a warm welcomed rush. As she'd grown older, Mama had admitted many times that she wasn't overly wealthy by design; she had little use for money and therefore liked to help others where she could. There was nothing he could do to stop Mama's generosity—or gullibility as the case more often than not proved to be. But at least he could leave for his vacation knowing this particular young woman hadn't left his grandmother's house stuffing bills in her pocket.
But Bailey wasn't finished.
"Mama loaned me money."
As the stone swelled in his chest, Mateo could only stare. He'd been right about her from the start? She'd taken advantage of Mama like those before her. He took in her innocent looks and cringed. He wished he'd never asked.
"A loan," he said, unconcerned that his tone was graveled. Mocking.
Her cheeks pinked up. "Don't say it like that."
"You say it's a loan," he shrugged, "it's a loan."
"I intend to pay back every cent."
"Really?" Intrigued, he crossed his arms. "And how do you intend to do that with no job, no plans?" From her reaction to his question about her father, there wouldn't be help coming from that source, either.
Her eyes hardened. "We can't all have charmed lives, Doctor."
"Don't presume to know anything about me," he said, his voice deep.
"I only know that I had no choice."
"We all have choices." At least when we're adults.
Her cheeks flushed more. "Then I chose escape."
He coughed out a laugh. This got better and better. "Now my grandmother was keeping you prisoner?"
"Not your grandmother."
His arms unraveled. Her voice held the slightest quiver. Her pupils had dilated until the blue was all but consumed by black. But she'd told him what he'd stupidly wanted to know. She'd accepted Mama's money. He didn't need or want excuses.
"Goodbye, Miss Ross." He headed inside.
"And thank you, Doctor," she called after him. "You've killed whatever faith I had left in the male species." A pulse thudding at his temple, he angled back. Her expression was dry. Sad. Infuriating. "I honestly thought you were a gentleman," she finished.
"Only when in the presence of a lady."
Self-disgust hit his gut with a jolt.
"I apologize," he murmured. "That wasn't called for."
"Do you even want to know what I needed to escape?" She ground out. "Why I needed that money?"
He exhaled heavily. Fine. After that insult, he owed her one. "Why did you need the money?"
"Because of a man who wouldn't listen," she said pointedly, her gaze hot and moist. "He said we were getting married and, given the situation I was in, I didn't have a choice."
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