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They'd come to kill her.
Two years of working on the seedier side of the city had honed her senses and taught her to keep herself sharp. She watched and she noticed—and she'd noticed them. A small group of men drinking too much, although she knew that would please Joe, who always hiked his prices when the punters were too drunk to notice. From her vantage point on the stage, she'd seen the notes changing hands, the bottles of whisky, the empty glasses and the glazed eyes but she'd just kept on singing, her voice pouring honey and whipped cream over anyone who bothered to listen. Ignoring the sick feeling in her gut that warned her that her time had finally run out, she sang about love and loss, knowing that the lonely men who frequented Joe's Bar knew far more about the second than the first.
And so did she.
It was an existence far from anyone's dreams but Jessie had stopped dreaming when she had been five years old.
'Hey, doll!' A man seated near the stage leered at her and waved a note. 'I fancy a private performance. Come over here and sing that song on my lap.'
Without missing a beat, Jessica backed away from him, flung her head back and belted out the final verse of the song with her eyes closed. As long as she had her eyes shut tight she could pretend that she was somewhere else. She wasn't singing to a crowd of leering men who had given up on life, she was singing to a packed stadium or opera house—to people who had paid the equivalent of a month's rent just to hear her voice. In that same fantasy she didn't have gnawing hunger pains in her stomach and she hadn't mended her cheap gold dress a hundred times. But most of all, she wasn't alone.
Someone out there was waiting for her.
Someone was going to pick her up from work and take her home somewhere warm, cosy and safe.
The song ended. She opened her eyes. And saw that someone was waiting for her.
Several men, but they weren't from her dreams—they were from a dark, terrifying nightmare.
And she knew that they'd come for her. Fear had shadowed her every step for so long that she felt worn out with anxiety—tired of looking over her shoulder.
The last warning she'd received had been a physical one, leaving her with bruises that had kept her home for a week.
But this time they weren't here to deliver a warning.
Feeling her mouth dry and her heart pound, Jessie reminded herself that she had a plan.
And a knife tucked in her suspender belt.
He sat in the back of the room, the darkness allowing him a rare moment of anonymity in a life lived in the spotlight. The previous night he'd walked the red carpet with a starlet on his arm. His business had made him a billionaire before he was thirty and he enjoyed the privileged existence of the super-rich, but his life had once been lived in places like this—surrounded by drunks, violence and the ever present threat of mortal danger. He'd grown up here—almost been sucked under by the greasy underbelly of society until he'd finally dragged himself, by sheer grit and determination, into a different world.
Another man might have chosen to lose those years, but he hated pretence of any sort and he carried the damage without apology, amused that the visible scars had proved as attractive to women as his dark, murky past.
Nothing aroused a woman's interest more than a bad boy, Silvio mused, knowing that if they'd been able to see inside his soul they would have run a mile. He was well aware that the women he mixed with liked the idea of danger, but not the reality. He also knew that the girl on the stage lived danger with every step and every breath.
He couldn't believe how far she'd sunk and he identified an emotion alien to him—guilt.
It was because of him that she was living this life.
His tension mounted as she moved in time to the beat, the subtle slide of her hips causing the man closest to him to lose his grip on his drink. The shatter of glass on the floor was a familiar sound and barely drew a glance from those around. Or maybe they were too numbed by the anaesthetising effects of alcohol to react.
Silvio sat in perfect stillness and the whisky on the table in front of him remained untouched. The glass was no more than a prop. Knowing what was to come, he couldn't afford to dull his senses. He also knew that whatever you escaped from today would still be waiting for you tomorrow, and he wasn't in need of a pause button.
He was a man who faced his mistakes, and he was facing one now.
He never should have left her.
No matter how difficult things had become between them, no matter how deep her hatred of him, he should not have walked away.
The girl moved gracefully across the stage, seducing the audience, raising pulse rates and hopes in equal measure, her melting dark eyes and glossy mouth promising everything.
He'd watched her grow up. Seen her evolve from child to woman and nature hadn't just been generous in bestowing her gifts; she'd been lavish.
And Jessie exploited those gifts as she sang with passion and feeling, her incredible voice sending a tingle down the length of Silvio's spine. Watching her sway, he felt himself grow hard and the power of his response angered him because he'd never allowed himself to think of her like that.
He set his jaw, reminding himself that the chemistry they shared was a forbidden thing. Something neither of them had ever pursued and never would.
She was singing a ballad now, a slow, sultry rebuke to some man who had broken her heart, and he narrowed his eyes, knowing that she wasn't singing from experience. Jessie had never allowed a man anywhere near her heart.
She'd shut herself away emotionally when she had been a child. Only her brother had been able to penetrate the defensive shield she put between herself and the world.
Changing his mind about the neutralising effects of alcohol, Silvio reached for his glass. He downed it in one mouthful, his gaze never shifting from the girl on the stage.
Her ebony curls tumbled over her bare shoulders, the tantalising curves of her gorgeous body enhanced by a gold mini-dress that skimmed across the top of her incredible legs, leaving virtually nothing to the imagination.
Which was presumably intentional.
If a man had been searching for gold and discovered Jessie, he would have died happy.
The whisky burned his throat. Or was it the anger? Was this really what she'd done with her life in his absence? It took extraordinary will power to prevent himself from dragging her off the stage and hauling her out of there, away from the greedy eyes and lecherous minds.
But he didn't want to draw attention to himself. This was the last time, he promised himself. The last time she was standing on that stage.
The barman approached, but Silvio refused the offer of another drink with a faint shake of his head, his ice-cold gaze shifting from the girl to the group of men hovering around the table near him.
He knew every one of them, and he knew the danger she was facing.
He'd made a mistake, he thought grimly, thinking she'd be better off without him. When she'd ordered him out of her life, he should have ignored her. But it had been impossible to defend himself from her accusations because everything she'd said to him was true.
Silvio's mouth tightened, aware that he'd chosen the worst possible night to re-enter her life. Tonight was the third anniversary of her brother's death.
And he was responsible for that death.
Knowing she had no time, Jessica didn't waste any of it changing. Less than a minute after she'd slipped into the tiny cupboard that Joe laughingly called a dressing room, she was out of the door again, a thin cardigan covering the gold dress, trainers on her feet instead of heels. Her feet were crying from the vicious bite of the cheap shoes but she'd taught herself to ignore the pain. Her feet always hurt. Everything hurt. Tonight was no different.
Her heart was thundering, her palms were sweating but she forced herself to focus, knowing that if she let the fear swallow her now, it would all be over.
And she owed this to Johnny.
Did they know what tonight was or was it a coincidence?
A lump formed in her throat as she thought of her brother. He'd always been there for her, but when he'd been in trouble she hadn't been able to save him—
Nursing her anger, she stepped out into the dark alleyway that ran along the back of the club, wondering whether this was going to be it for her. Was it going to end here in this grimy dark street amongst people who didn't care if she lived or died?
'Well, if it isn't our baby doll.' A slow male drawl came from the darkness and they emerged in a group, hoods over their heads, their faces obscured by the darkness. 'Do you have the money or are you ready to give us a private performance?'
Almost melting into the gutter with fear, Jessie managed to curve her lips into a smile. 'I don't have the money, but I have something else. Something better,' she said huskily, her voice smooth and full of promise. 'But you're not going to be able to claim it from there.' She gave the leader a provocative smile and beckoned him over. 'You'll need to come closer. One at a time.'
The man gave a short laugh. 'I knew you'd see sense. Why are you covering up that gold dress?' He sauntered towards her and Jessie forced herself to stand still and swallow the scream that was sitting at the base of her throat.
'It's raining.' She undid her cardigan and watched with satisfaction as his eyes popped out of his head and his brain stopped working. Men were so predictable. 'I'm cold.'
'You're not going to be cold for long, baby doll. There are six of us here to warm you up.' He stopped in front of her, all arrogant swagger, showing off in front of the other members of his gang. 'Where are the sexy heels?' He grabbed the cardigan and dragged it off her, the movement tearing the flimsy fabric. 'I really hope you haven't forgotten the sexy heels, babe, or I'm going to have to punish you.'
'I haven't forgotten the shoes,' Jessie said sweetly. 'In fact, I have them right here.' Really angry now because he'd ruined her only cardigan, she brought her hand round in front of her and jabbed the stiletto heel of her shoe hard into his groin.
With a howl of pain the man doubled up and then crumpled to the ground.
Jessica stood for a moment, slightly shocked by the sight of his writhing, agonised body. And then the shoe fell from her nerveless fingers and she ran.
Her trainers splashed through the puddles, the breath tore in her lungs and her knees were shaking so badly her legs wouldn't work properly.
From behind her came shouts, swearing, and then the thunder of feet as the rest of the men started in pursuit.
It was like being chased by a pack of wild hunting dogs, the terrifying inevitability of the ending slowing her pace.
Was it better to run and be caught from behind? Or better to turn and face the enemy?
She wanted to see what was happening—she didn't want to be blinded.
And then she slammed into something solid and a pair of strong hands caught her and stopped her flight.
Oh, God, somehow one of them had got around her. She was trapped.
It was all over.
For a single moment she froze, like a frightened bird caught in the talons of a hawk, and then the sound of shouts and running feet grew louder and she knew she had only moments.
Survival instincts took over.
Jessie lifted her knee to deliver a blow to his manhood but this man was quicker than her, anticipating the movement with a swift shift of his body. Without uttering a sound, he slid a strong arm around her waist and yanked her against him, ensuring that she had no room for manoeuvre.
Pressed against rock-hard muscle and powerful thighs, Jessie searched desperately for weakness and found none. At least, not in him. But being held against that powerful male body triggered an altogether different reaction inside her. Panic, yes. And something more intimate and twice as frightening. As her pelvis burned and melted Jessie struggled against his grip, shocked and appalled by the sudden flare of sexual awareness that gripped her. It must be something to do with adrenaline, she thought wildly. Something about the final moments before death making your senses more acute. Death was thundering down on her and she was aroused.
She was still trying to find an explanation for her inexplicable response when she became aware of the sudden change in the hard male body pressed against her.
So it was the same for him, she thought with a bitter smile. He did have a weakness after all—the same one all men had.
Turning that to her advantage, Jessie slid her hand down his powerful body and covered him with the flat of her hand.
His shock was only marginally greater than hers, and she heard the breath hiss through his teeth a fraction of a second before he slackened his hold. It was all she needed. Her fist landed against the side of his face and she was running again.
She took fewer than three steps before the arms closed over her again and he hauled her back like a rag doll.
'Maledezione, don't ever pull a stunt like that again!' The cold, furious voice penetrated her terror and Jessie felt a flicker of fear far, far deeper than anything she'd experienced before because she finally recognised who it was who held her.
Stunned, she stared into the face she'd just punched. 'Silvio—?'
'Stai zitto! Be quiet! Don't say a word,' he commanded, his fingers tightening on her wrists as the men finally caught up with them.
Jessie's mind went blank with shock.
Images exploded in her head. Images of the last time she'd seen him. Images she'd banished from her brain.
'Hey—thanks for catching her.' This was a different man from the one she'd injured with her shoe and Jessie wondered numbly whether his friend was still lying in the alley, clutching himself.
She didn't even care.
She was no longer worried about them.
The air was suddenly choked with an entirely different sort of tension and her emotions were focused on the man whose powerful body was pressed against every contour of hers.