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Caprice Tregore wrapped her confidence around her like a protective cloak and strode into The Corbett, Aspen's newest five-star hotel, which a Russian billionaire had built one year ago to cater to the rich and famous. She surveyed the interior, her senses in overdrive.
It was a breathtaking, palatial design of marble pillars, gleaming granite floors and exquisite tapestries dressing massive walls. This lavish and elite winter hotspot was exactly what she had pointedly avoided the past seven years. If she didn't desperately need help, she wouldn't be setting foot in this playground for the rich and famous now.
She quickly circled the three-tiered castle fountain that dominated the center of the expansive lobby and scanned the myriad seating nooks tucked here and there for the handsome Italian she'd come here to meet. With rising annoyance, she realized not one man resembled him. Was he late? Had he stood her up?
"Punctual as always, Miss Tregore?"
That deep voice rumbling behind her, flavored with a distinct Italian accent, sent an electric shiver zinging through her. That was the last reaction she wanted this playboy to incite in her and she wouldn't tolerate another second of it!
"Punctuality is one of the cardinal business virtues," she said stiffly as she turned to face him with a professional smile she'd perfected.
For one second it threatened to slip as she stared into his riveting blue eyes framed in a face surely reserved for an archangel. Or the devil?
God knew either could apply to Luciano Duchelini. That reminder stiffened her spine and her resolve.
"A Don Marquis quotation, but you left the rest off," he said, not one iota of amusement ringing in that velvety voice that she'd once found incredibly attractive. "Always insist on it in your subordinates."
"I wasn't suggesting you were"
"It doesn't matter. I watched you walk in five minutes ago," he said. "Your promptness is an asset."
That he knew exactly when she'd walked in the door spoke volumes. So did the fact he'd remained a bit hidden, making her seem the one a bit late and harried.
Not the impression she wanted to impart.
The Luciano she'd known had always run five to ten minutes late. It was a control thing and she'd accounted for it by arriving exactly on time. But he'd been here waiting.
That was a huge surprise. And a miscalculation on her part.
Seven years ago Luciano had been the world champion on the slopes, winning more gold medals than any Alpine skier before him, besting even his acclaimed father. The only things he was ever on time for were competitions.
It had been proven no man could beat him on the slopes. Rumors had flown that his ex-wife had captured his heart and taken it with her to her grave. That he no longer cared what anyone thought of him. That he lived for the moment, in sport and pleasure.
That no woman could reach the heart of the man.
Yet once she'd foolishly fallen for the champion, beset by a strong teenage crush. He was her idol. Her coach.
Her friend. Or so she'd thought.
He'd used her friendship, her naïveté, just as he'd done with his lovers. She'd hated him then for hurting her, and hated herself now because she knew better than to trust his type.
He was a celebrated playboy. Life had been a game to him and he'd played it to the hilt. He laughed. He partied. He took nothing seriously.
Not her. She'd assumed the role of a reckless flirt one time in her life. A stupid act of retaliation that she'd regretted every day since. That one horrific incident convinced her that she wasn't a player in that world.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me," she said, refusing to let him fluster her.
He smiled, though it appeared as practiced as hers. "My pleasure."
If only she could say the same. She had to strike a winning deal. A position she deeply resented.
She'd worked hard. Saved. Scrimped. Yet it hadn't been enough to save her when crisis struck. Now she needed this deal or she would lose Tregore Lodge, her heritage, her home, her livelihood.
"I've come prepared, Mr. Duchelini," she said, getting right to the point.
He laughed, a brief, rich contralto that set his blue eyes twinkling and carved his beautifully sculpted lips into a half smile he likely used to charm ladies. "You are a take-charge woman. I remember how expertly you cracked the whip to get me to those pre-event meetings on time."
She nearly smiled until she recalled how bitterly their last working relationship had ended. "It would have been easier if you hadn't been a night owl."
He simply shrugged, just like he'd done back then only lacking the teasing smile. Zero contrition. She expected no less from a rich womanizer who'd skirted conventions all of his life.
"Come," he said. "Let's go someplace private to talk."
Said the spider to the fly? Being anywhere private with him was the last thing she wanted to do, but she said, "I'm ready."
"As am I. This way," he said, and gestured to the elevators.
She fell into step beside him and tamped down her annoyance that he hadn't simply arranged for her to meet him at a set location for their meeting. The sooner this phase was over, the better. No, not over. Resolved, so she could move forward achieving her dream.
"I brought plans for the lodge and a prospectus for my program, Mr. Duchelini," she said, not wishing to waste a minute, not wanting to be here any longer than necessary.
"Please, you know me. Call me Luciano or Luc." He motioned to the open elevator and she stepped inside, then stood as far from him as she could though she may as well have not bothered.
The mirrored wall behind made the space loom larger, but it did that to her companion as well. Not that he needed any physical enhancements.
Luciano simply consumed any space he was in with his commanding presence, absorbing the energy of everything around him.
She knew most women would be content to stare at his gorgeous body and classically handsome features because years ago she'd fallen under his charismatic spell. Not now, though it was tempting to admire him. Thank God she was stronger than that, that she'd learned from her mistakes.
"Very well, Luciano," she said, refusing to use his nickname as she'd once done. That would be too familiar. "To be honest, I'm surprised you didn't send someone in your stead."
He shot her a frown, his gaze cool. "There is much business that I attend to personally."
"You never used to, unless it pertained to competition," she said, and it was the truth. "What I meant was I hadn't expected you to fly halfway around the world to speak with me."
"It was no bother to coordinate my schedule to come here," he said matter-of-factly. "I was already in Denver to interview a ski therapist, like yourself, when my assistant phoned to let me know you were seeking a financial backer."
In a second, the stakes skyrocketed with competition thrown into an already tense equation, but she remained calm and determined to win his bid. "Good. I'm eager to discuss business."
"As am I," he said with a bite of impatience.
Game on. Having a rival meant she had one way to proceedfull tilt.
"Please," he said as the elevator door whispered open, motioning her to precede him with a disarming smile that was likely meant to throw her equilibrium askew.
Immune to his charms, she returned his smile with a cool one of her own and stepped from lift. And came up short. She blinked, surprised to be standing in a short hallway with a single door at one end and carved double doors to her right.
"This way." Luciano escorted her toward the double doors, where he reached around her, swiped a key in the slot and knuckled the door open. "I trust you don't mind discussing business in my suite?"
"Not at all," she said, stepping inside to regain the buffer of personal space he'd come too close to crossing.
The amazing view of the mountains from his private suite drew her to the windows. She welcomed the calm their rugged beauty always gave her, this grounding to reality that gave her strength.
"Thank you for showing interest in my proposal," she said, turning to face Luciano, whose attention seemed riveted to a small laptop open on the desk. "If there's anything in particular you wish to know about the designs I've envisioned for Tregore Lodge "
"Your property is small and in need of intense restoration," he cut in, not bothering to look at her.
She cursed the flush burning her face, a show of emotion that she'd never learned to control. "True. Tregore Lodge needs major updating to make it competitive again. But I believe it has much potential."
"I don't," he said, rudely shooting down the momentum she needed to build before she had a chance to explain how she could establish a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility there.
"If you feel that way, then why did you ask for this meeting?" she asked, the question burning holes in her patience despite her determination to maintain a business mien, despite the determination to finance her program.
"Simple. The only admirable investment on your property is you."
"Is this some kind ofjoke?" she asked, needing to know she hadn't misunderstood him.
"Not at all." He studied her with eyes that took everything in and gave absolutely no emotion away, eyes that touched her as intimately as a caress, bold and without apology. "You hold my interest, Caprice. I want you."
Seven years ago she would have fallen all over him, deliriously happy. But then she'd been innocent. Trusting.
She knew better than to trust a man now. Though this was the faintest glimmer of the playboy she'd known, passionate and direct, she took his remark as an insult.
"Look, I came here to discuss business that is near and dear to my heart, Mr. Duchelini. If you're not interested in hearing my proposal, then you're not interested in me." She turned and strode toward the double doors with calm, precise steps, determined to walk out with her head held high and in charge of her life.
"Stay," he said, the command soft yet persuasive.
She stopped, fingers tightening around the leather handle of her bag. "Why should I?"
"I've a proposal that will benefit us both," he said. "I can grant you what you want."
That was a fact she knew all too well. And really, could she afford to walk out without hearing his offer? No, she admitted.
"Then let's hear it," she said, whirling to face him. "With pleasure," he said crisply, then strode back toward his desk. "Would you care for a glass of wine?"
"No, thank you."
She never mixed alcohol with business, and that had never been more crucial than now. Despite his wicked reputation, Luciano Duchelini was a superb businessman, and he would expect the same of her. He could take advantage of her and her lodge if she wasn't careful.
Caprice crossed to the sofa angled near the balcony with her composure intact and her mind fixed fully on securing a means to fund her program. That was all she wanted from him.
"Tregore Lodge. Tell me your plans for it," he said, as he dropped onto a leather office chair and twirled it to face her, his long fingers draped casually over the curved chair arms.
"Gladly," she said as she set her portfolio beside her and dug inside it. "I plan to renovate Tregore Lodge inside and out. Foremost is establishing my alternative program for those who have never skied as well as for people who possess varying levels of aptitude on the slopes."
"Your program is tiered then?" he asked.
"In its most basic form, as you'll see by these," she said, her confidence snapping into rapier-sharp focus as she handed him a copy of her carefully prepared prospectus.
He lounged back on the chair and thumbed through the papers, looking relaxed and in charge, the last thing about him that was still organic. But he'd changed.
Not in looks or physique. He was still disarmingly handsome. Still lean and fit. But he'd lost all trace of the flirtatious, teasing charmer she'd remembered so well and adopted the image of a serious businessman who detested wasting his time.
Or maybe he simply still wasn't attracted to her. Maybe he believed if he was too friendly, he'd have a repeat of the teenager with the monstrous crush on the star athlete. If that was the case, he need not worry.
She had no desire in him beyond securing a business deal. "Regardless of one's ability, I slant the program to the individual's needs."
"Just what I wanted to hear," he said at last. "This is why I am interested in you."
"I'm flattered," she said, relieved he was referring to her program.
"As was intended," he said with a bow of his head. "Do you recall my brother?"
"Julian? Yes, I do." Quite well, in fact. "Years ago, he crashed often in your suite."
She'd immediately liked the boisterous Italian who took great pleasure needling and teasing his champion older brother. And the world had gloried in the upstart's daring exploits on the slopes, expecting Julian to set new world records, breaking those set by his father and Luciano despite his undisciplined ways.
But rumor had it Julian had kept his slot on the Italian team only because of his brother's lead position. Whether that was true or not she never knew. One month after the World Cup, Julian had broken his neck in a tragic ski accident and ended up bound to a wheelchair for life.
"Julian is lucky to be alive," she said and meant it.
He gave an abrupt nod, jaw snapping taut. "My brother doesn't think so."
"I'm not surprised. Paralysis is difficult for average patients to cope with. It tends to devastate top athletes." And Julian had been a new star on the horizon. "Recurrent bouts of depression are understandable in cases such as his. That is why adaptive skiing works," she said. "It boosts confidence both on and off the slopes, strengthens physical ability and agility, and provides a means to broaden social skills."
"Unfortunately Julian has gained less than desirable results with alternative skiing and given up the effort," he said. "Even more troubling, none of the therapists I've hired have a program as individualized as yours. He needs your help, Caprice. I believe he will respond to any challenge you put before him."
She blinked, his effusive praise at odds with his earlier criticism of her plans for her lodge. "Wait a minute. If you believe my program is that beneficial, then why are you hesitant to finance the renovation of Tregore Lodge?"
"It is too small a facility to sustain a program of your scope."
A fact she couldn't deny. Still, the lodge was hers and she could expand in time if she wished. "It's all I can manage." All she could afford.
"Alone, perhaps." He pushed to his feet and paced before the windows, his stride gracefully masculine. "You need to expand your scope. What you have envisioned has global appeal. Run with it."
He couldn't be serious. Just the idea of taking her program into the world market had her head spinning. She didn't want to run something that huge.
"You're talking incorporation and I want none of that," she said.
"I want the lodge to remain controllable, and I can do that by keeping it family oriented," she said.
He tapped one long finger on the side of his glass and studied her so long that dread lay like a lead ball in her stomach. "You want to police every aspect of your program. That's why you balk at courting the après-ski set. The expansion would be too great and you would have to delegate, to trust others, and you can't do that."